The Eternal Airplane

I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.

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Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.

Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.

Or maybe not.

But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.

Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.

Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.

I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.

Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.

In federal prison.

Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.

Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.

Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.

But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?

 

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

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I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

You are now free to move about the country

Low enough. Far enough. Great food. Good hotel. North Texas Regional was the only logical destination for our break-in flight. Plus, most of the flight path is over open prairie and farmland with abundant places to put down safely if the new engine craps out.

About the only inhospitable terrain on the entire route is a short stretch of rough canyon country south of Amarillo.

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Naturally, that’s where it happened…

Thump! The plane shudders. The prop protests with an odd whine. Probably just an air pocket. Turbulence from a thermal. Nothing more than a pothole in the sky.

A strong smell of engine exhaust fills the cockpit.

Lisa and I exchange somber glances. That tense spot between my shoulders, which had largely faded away, is suddenly back with a vengeance. I study the engine monitor. RPM good, and steady. Oil pressure and temp in range, and steady. The two back cylinders are running hotter than their sisters in the nose of the plane, but all are steady and well below redline.

Then I see it: The exhaust gas temperature on the number two cylinder is… dancing? The blue bar on the CGR-30P engine monitor is jumping up and down. First showing 1,423 degrees, then indicating 1,215 degrees, next 1,372 degrees. The other three blue EGT bars are steady. Number two continues to vacillate. What could cause such a thing? Would a stuck valve cause erratic gas temps? I cock my head to one side, listening for any odd rhythms from the engine. All sounds good.

Below my wing canyons, ragged rocks, juniper trees. I ease the yoke back and start a shallow climb. Our planned refueling stop, at Childress, is still 20 Maalox moments… I mean minutes… away.

It’s the closest airport.

But other than the dancing EGT all appears well. The dull roar of the engine is steady, unchanging. Power and pressures perfect. All other temps in range. Healthy. There’s nothing to indicate a problem. I ask Lisa to email our mechanic: Should we worry? It’s a pointless exercise. It’s Saturday. He won’t read our missive until Monday. By then, either we’ll be back home or we’ll be in a crumbled pile of metal at the bottom of a canyon.

We fly on, the number two EGT the metronome to the silent song my engine is playing. The tense spot between my shoulders grows and spreads.

At last the badlands pass behind our tails, I back off on the throttle and drop back down to 800 feet. It’s my new favorite cruising altitude, 300 feet higher than race flying and the required minimum altitude to overfly any building, vehicle, boat, person, outhouse or henhouse—and higher than most cell phone towers are tall—while still down close enough to the ground to reveal all the interesting things there are to see. It’s also maximizing our odds of properly seating the piston rings on our new cylinders.

Finally, I roll into the pattern at Childress. The name rang a bell when we planned the flight, but I couldn’t conjure up a mental image of the place. We’ve landed at so many airports these last two years that they’re all a jumble in my head. Now that I see it below, the taxiway new black asphalt standing out in stark contrast to the old faded grey runway, I remember it as the place Lisa momentarily lined up on the taxiway coming in for a landing last year on our way home from the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race. Normally I would tease her by asking if I should land on the one on the left or the one on the right, but I’m still worried about our engine. In fact, we’ve flown in near silence since the EGT started its erratic dance.

We glide down over the cotton fields and gently kiss the runway. As I throttle back the EGT drops to zero. We taxi to the fuel pumps, shut down, and get out the tool kit. The air is chilly, but the engine metal hot as I open up the cowl and peer in. I honestly don’t know what I expect to see. There’s no splattered oil on the cylinder. The exhaust stack is intact. I stare at the new probe that measures the temperature of the exhaust. The band that holds it in place is oddly oval, but then I realize that I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

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The probe on the forward cylinder is nearly out of sight, so I decide to pop open the cowl on the copilot side so I can see what the probe looks like on the other side. It also has the oddly-shaped band, but I notice that there’s a spring over the wires that’s in a different spot. I go back to my side of the plane and poke at the sensor.

It falls out.

Ah. Problem solved. A wonky sensor, that’s all. I push it back into place and reset the retaining spring. I have no great expectation that my fix will hold, but at least I know the readings are nothing to worry about.

I check the oil and find the level hasn’t budged, a new experience for me, as our “old” engine was as fond of oil as an alcoholic sailor is of rum. I stretch, rotate my arms to loosen the knot in my back, and look around. Then it occurs to me: I’m 250 miles out from our home base, and our only issue on engine #3 is a loose sensor.

After all these months grounded, after two failed engine rebuilds, we’re back. We’re truly back in the air and free to move about the country.

 

A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?

Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

The sad truth of the Lindbergh “we”

We’re in Miami, Oklahoma, and I’ve never been so lonely in my life. That’s because the “we” is just Tess and me. And she’s not even with me, actually. She’s snug in a hangar out at the airport and I’m stuck all by myself at the Hampton Inn under low grey skies that mimic my mood.

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This trip has been going downhill since before it started.

It was supposed to be a father-son adventure across half of the county to run a race out over the islands of Lake Erie, but Rio fell ill and didn’t feel recovered enough to make the long trip. Lisa, Rio’s normal flight crew substitute, had other commitments; and Debs wasn’t going to leave her sick baby’s side—so I was on my own.

Oh, well, I told myself, it’s only for a few days. But I never made it to the race, and the few days grew to a week. And more. Engine problems stranded me for days far from home, and once fixed, I still couldn’t go home. A replacement cylinder needs to be broken in, and this obligates me to remain at low altitude. Solo with only the plane for company, “we” are following the rivers of the Midwest ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico, and it feels like the plane and I have been away from home for years.

Actually, flying solo is oddly restful. Planes do make good company in flight. They talk to you and require your attention. They are also fun to be with. But on the ground, at the end of the day, the fun ends.

I take my meals by myself, with only my phone for company. How pathetic — checking email two dozen times waiting for my entree. I explore new communities off the beaten path, visit tiny museums, poke my head into funky shops. But with no one to share the experiences with, they are all empty adventures. This lonely journey makes me realize that aviation is sweetest shared.

I hope it’s a long, long time before I have another flight where “we” is just the plane and I.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Under pressure

“Something’s wrong,” I tell Lisa.

Immediately her head—which had been bee-bopping back and forth to some silent music playing in her mind—freezes, and her perpetual in-flight smile dissipates.

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“Huh? What?” she asks.

I point to the oil pressure gauge. We’ve lost oil pressure. A lot of it. The needle on the small round dial in the lower left hand corner of Tessie’s panel is in the red arc, down to around 20 pounds per square inch. Damn! Why hadn’t I noticed it dropping earlier? When was the last time I looked? I scan my instruments regularly, automatically, without thinking about it—just like breathing. They don’t even register in my mind unless they have changed a bit. But to go from green to red is a seismic change. How could I have missed that?

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Did I get distracted?

Or is it dropping that fast?

We’re just a hair over an hour out from Wilbarger County at Vernon, Texas, where we’d refueled and added oil. So we have plenty of oil. It must be a bad gauge. Unlike most pilots, I resist the temptation to thump the gauge with my finger to see if it will change its mind. Instead, I work the problem in my head, but talk out loud to keep my copilot in the loop.

The flight pad is estimating 35 minutes until our next scheduled fuel stop, based on current ground speed. But if it isn’t a bad gauge, thirty-five minutes is a long time to run an engine short of oil.

What are my options? “What’s the nearest airport?” I ask Lisa. She snatches my iPhone, which runs a backup copy of Garmin Pilot, and stabs at the screen.

“The closest is Smiley Johnson Municipal,” she says, “not too far behind us.” Good omen, I think, with a name like that. “But no services,” she adds.

Hmmm… if we need a mechanic it would be better to land somewhere that has one. The closest place with maintenance shops is Amarillo, about 20 minutes away, north and west of our current location.

The oil pressure gauge hasn’t changed. Still too damn low, but not dropping. The oil temp is normal. If we were really short on oil, it should be running hot. The engine temp is good, too.

Our gauges are telling different stories.

But which one is telling the truth? If an airplane cockpit were a democracy, the oil pressure gauge would be out-voted by the two temperature gauges.

Of course a cockpit isn’t a democracy. Far from it. I’m in absolute command—with absolute responsibility.

OK, so it looks like a bad gauge. But if it isn’t, what would cause us to be down so far, so fast? Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless. It could be we’ve sprung a leak in an oil line, cracked oil filter, or suffered some other calamity, and at this very second my engine’s life blood is draining out, smearing a slick coat of death over the belly of the plane.

Better an empty airport than an empty stretch of road in rural Texas. We could be minutes away from a bona fide emergency. It’s time to get on the ground.

I press the “NRST” button on the Flight Pad, then select Smiley Johnson. It’s only 16 miles behind us. I roll Tess into a right bank. Time to get on the ground where we can check the actual oil level. If it’s fine, we’ve not lost much time and we can lift off and be on our way. If it really is low, we can top up. If we have some sort of leak… Well, we’ll be stranded for a while, but it beats all the other alternatives—given the situation.

I throttle back to lose some altitude. The oil pressure drops to zero. My heart skips a beat.

Quickly, I throttle back up and the oil pressure recovers, but only to the top of the red line.

We fly in strained silence for what feel like an eternity. The engine sings its muffled roar. No change. No roughness. No skips. I fly with one eye out the windscreen and one eye on the oil pressure gauge.

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There it is! A narrow ribbon of concrete running north-south. Shelter from the storm that hit on a bright sunny day.

We drop into a lazy curving arc and line up. Seconds later our tires kiss the pavement, letting out their characteristic chirp. I taxi to the apron and quickly shut down. We sit for a moment, collecting our thoughts and listening to the wind buffet the top of the canopy. Then I slide the two halves of the canopy into the belly of the plane, climb out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop to the ground. I walk around my left wing and kneel on the ground, looking up at the belly of the plane, half-expecting it to be dripping with fresh black oil.

Well, nothing unusual anyway. Like a Harley Davison, if a Continental C-85 isn’t leaking some oil, it’s probably completely out. But we only have the normal small smear of oil that the engine has burped out staining our underside.

Next, I open the cowling by freeing the four camlocs that hold it securely closed in flight. I peer into the engine compartment. All looks well. We’re not car-show clean (and never will be) but there’s nothing unusual to report.

Gingerly, I reach for the dipstick, being careful not to brush my hand against any of the red-hot engine components. I grip the bright yellow cap and turn it counter clockwise. Wisps of steam escape the oil sump as I pull out the dipstick. I wipe the stick with a red oil rag, then place it back in the sump and lock the cap by turning it clockwise. Then I pull it again to read the level.

It’s half what it ought to be.

Son of a bitch. The gauge wasn’t lying.

Our oil is low. But there’s no sign of it leaking. So where does that leave us? Where the hell did the oil go? And what are our options now?

I sit cross-legged on the pavement and stare at my airplane, imploring it to answer my questions. None of the facts add up. I can make no sense of bizarre layers of information.

We have a quart and a half of oil with us, which should have been enough to get us home. Now I don’t know how far it will get me, and curse myself for not having more onboard. It’s Sunday in Texas, and that means that the vast majority of airport businesses are closed. I get out my phone and start checking the hours of various shops at nearby airports.

To find one that’s not observing the Sabbath, we need to go to Amarillo. From where I sit, it’s only a hair over half an hour to Amarillo’s Tradewind Airport. With no visible sign of an oil leak, it seems a fair bet we can make it. Once there, we can see how much oil we lost, if any, en route, and then decide how to proceed.

I run my thinking by Lisa, and she agrees. We mount up and take to the air.

Topped off, our oil pressure is now good. Flying low over the Texas countryside, it holds steady. Across the south side of the city we fly, descending on final approach over a sprawling cemetery.

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On the tarmac in front of the terminal, I order fuel and two quarts of oil from the lineman. Then I free the cowl to check the oil.

It’s unchanged.

 

[From Tradewind, we flew back to our home base at Santa Rosa with normal oil consumption. The cause of our low oil is one of those airplane mysteries that will never be solved. My best guess is that some sort of bubble in the sump tricked me into thinking I had more oil than I actually did when I added oil in Vernon, TX. But we also topped up that morning before the short flight from North Texas Regional to Vernon, so that explanation really doesn’t hold water either.]

How much flying is too much?

Fifteen days. Two hundred forty five gallons of 100 low-lead avgas. Three thousand, four hundred, and seventeen miles. Forty-four point nine hours added to my logbook.

Out from our New Mexico home base to South Carolina, then down to the middle of Florida, up the Gulf Coast, across the South, and eventually home again. Yep, it’s race season, and this epic commute took in the first four races of the season. When I got home again, I was pretty much flown out.

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But that was a week ago.

Now I’m chomping at the bit. The sky is calling.

How much flying is too much? Can we pilots ever get enough? I’ve always suspected not. But I’d never given any thought to who has flown more than anyone else until I encountered this plaque at Montgomery, Alabama, where fierce winds and turbulence forced me to alight early for the day (nearly kissing the ground after I pried my bruised body out of the cockpit):

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The plaque was my introduction to John Edward Long, Jr., the pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for more time as Pilot-in-Command than any other person on the planet. His total flight time? A holy-cow 64,397 hours.

Apparently, Long was a low and slow kind of pilot like me. Most of his record-breaking flight hours were in a Piper Cub, flying power line patrols less than 200 feet off the ground. He joined the Alabama Power Company in 1953, and flew for them pretty much five days a week for the next 46 years.

Long was born in 1915, a dozen years into the history of powered flight. He grew up in the age of Lindy and Post. When he was 15 years old, his grandmother gave him 50 cents to take a ride in a Ford Tri-motor, and he got bit by the aviation bug. Long started flying at age 17 in a Curtiss Robin. It was the Great Depression. Times were tough and money was tight. He washed airplanes, trading a week’s work for a half hour of flight time, and in 1939 he was granted pilot certificate number 44,202.

At 115 pounds, he was too light to be a military pilot when war broke out, so during World War 2 he served as an airplane mechanic instead. After the war he worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor before joining the power company.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Long filled 14 logbooks that, if added up and divided by the number of hours in a year, total up to a full seven years.

Even birds don’t spend that much of their lives in the air.

On average, from first setting foot in an airplane to hanging up his wings, he flew 961 hours a year—an astounding amount of time in the cockpit. And throughout it all, he had an amazing safety record.

Long passed away in 1999. I would have liked to have met him, but I’m glad to have at least discovered him. I count myself lucky that my long flight intersected his long career.

I’m on logbook number two now, but to be honest, I didn’t fill the first one. It just got too tattered up to use anymore. So Long’s long record is one I’ll never break, but it proves what I’ve always known: There’s no such thing as too much flying.