The little bomber that could

Twin tails. An open greenhouse-like nose you can see right through. Must be a B-25 Mitchell.

Oh. Wait.

It only has one engine. Well, more correctly, one engine mount.

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Yes, this sad, disassembled aeronautical apparatus is my beloved Tessie. Her engine, nose gear, and wing tanks are removed—as is the skin from the cockpit to the firewall on both sides of the fuselage. Parts of this airplane that haven’t seen the light of day since 1947 are now exposed. It’s fascinating. And horrifying.

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Beneath her wings is a pile of assorted parts that resemble the debris field of a plane crash…

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Her engine sits on a pair of saw horses…

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Although, I must say that the view out the sides is stunning…

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So much so, I told my mechanic we should skip the metal and just put in plexi. I think for a moment he was afraid I was serious, as he started muttering something about the skin being part of the structure that holds the plane together…

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Or maybe it was because he’s started working on the new skins, apparently complicated by the fact that they have a compound curve, meaning that the metal plates curve top to bottom and front to back. Asymmetrically, of course.

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On the bright side, I’ll be able to keep the old skins as art. Hey, people pay good money for faux airplane side panels to serve as aeronautical decor. Now I’ll have one, too. Only mine will be authentic, one with real history.

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And while we’re all bummed out about the state of our family airplane…

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We know this sad state of disassembly isn’t forever. Progress is slow, but she’ll be put back together soon. And I’ll leave the green-house-like nose to the B-25s.

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Horsing around, Part II

We tried every socket, wrench, and tool in the two hangars. They were all too short. Nothing would reach the damn sparkplug. Complicating the issue was the fact we couldn’t be 100% sure what type of socket we needed. It was clear that the three quarter-inch was too small and the one-inch was too big. But unlike Goldie Locks, in the world of socket wrenches there’s more than one bowl of porridge to choose from once you rule out the bowl that’s too hot and the bowl that’s too cold. In between three quarter-inch and one-inch stand 13/16, 7/8, and 15/16.

Seriously? Why on earth do we need so many nuts so close in size to each other?

Still, clearly, to shoe the horse, to get to battle, to save the kingdom, we needed a new nail. Well, I guess we had the nail. We needed the damn hammer.

It was the weekend; the local True Value hardware store was closed, so we hopped in the car and went to the nearest truck stop to see if we could buy a better tool. Believe it or not, there are three huge truck stops in town: A Love’s, a Pilot, and a TA.

And none of them carry socket wrenches big enough for sparkplugs.

“What the hell kinda of truck stops don’t have tools for sparkplugs?” fumed Lisa.

I don’t know much about engines, but one thing I do know is that diesel engines don’t have sparkplugs, so there’s no reason for truckers to need tools to remove plugs, hence no real reason for a truck stop to carry such a tool, other than the fact it would have made my day much easier.

Next, she called her adult son Adrian, owner of many a tool. There was no way he could come down to SXU, but he told her his tool box was open to her any time day or night. The problem was that reaching his tool box would require a 3+ hour round trip.

But with the sun now approaching the apex of the day, it was clear that we’d need to take a trip somewhere. The best bet was Las Vegas, NM, a hair over an hour’s drive away. Vegas has a two hardware stores, three auto parts shops, two ranch supply places, and a Walmart. Given all those choices, finding a socket capable of removing the sparkplug didn’t sound like much of a gamble.

We loaded up all of our close-but-no-cigar tools and headed out. And drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Lisa decided to hit AutoZone first, as it seemed logical to her that a car place would have the right tool for a sparkplug, even though we accepted the fact that car and airplane sparkplugs might not have much in common. When we arrived we found socket wrench heaven. Sockets as far as the eye could see. Well, not that far. But a good thirty feet of sockets hung on pegs in the middle isle of the long, skinny store. We quickly found the short versions of the three most probable sizes, and then found deep versions. Or maybe they were called extra-deep, I can’t remember. All I knew was that they looked quite a bit longer than the ones we had that didn’t quite reach. Problem solved. Or so I thought. Just as quickly, Lisa discovered that we could buy a whole set of sockets for the price of the three solo performers.

At the last second, as we walked up to the cash register, I realized that our new problem-solving sockets were all half inch “drive.” That meant the end of the socket that connects to the wrench is designed for a half-inch wrench, but all of ours are 3/8 inches. We needed an adaptor to make the whole plan work. I was very proud of myself that I noticed this and saved us a worthless drive.

How wrong I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Naturally, AutoZone didn’t have the adaptor we needed. I guess they wanted us to spend thirty bucks on the wrench next size up. We ducked that bullet by finding the adaptor at the nearby ranch store and left Vegas in high spirits, thinking that we’d have the plug out within minutes of arriving back at the airport.

We drove. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove, arriving back at SXU with the sun low in the sky and long shadows stretching across the landscape. We happily snapped the adaptor onto our wrench, then clicked a long socket onto the adaptor, sliding it down over the narrow shaft of the sparkplug to find…

It, too, wasn’t deep enough.

The socket didn’t reach the nut of the Tempest spark plug that Lisa’s mechanic though was the root of all evil.

Now complicating the issue was the fact that the right mag—the one giving us trouble—is supposed to control the top plugs, suggesting that our issue was a top plug, but there was a good chance that the plane’s ignition switch was wired backwards, with the right mag position controlling the left mag, and vice versa. So we had no clue which of the eight plugs was the problem child.

With nothing to lose, and a wrench that could check all the remaining seven plugs, which were Champs, we decided to pull and check all the others. Given that the right mag was supposed to control the tops we started with the top, removing the sparkplug covers on Warbler’s cowl, which exposes narrow canyons in the metal engine cover that are not quite wide enough to really work on the plugs. (The Continental Engine doesn’t really fit in the Ercoupe; it was designed for another engine altogether, but that’s a story for another day.)

I slipped the wrench over the first sparkplug, and this time, being a Champion plug, it fit. I tugged at the wrench. I pulled. I pushed. The plug was stuck fast like Excalibur in the stone.

“Thump it,” said Lisa.

Like hell. I was afraid I’d break it.

“I’ve watched the guys,” Lisa said, “they thump it.”

Leary of this advice I pulled my iPhone out of my rear pocket and did a Google Search on sparkplug removal. The collective wisdom of the internet was that you should thump a sparkplug.

“OK,” I said, and thumped the wrench handle with my right palm. Pain shot up my arm like a springing Cheetah. “Ow,” I whined, shaking my hand.

Lisa tried next, holding the wrench in one hand, and thumping its handle with the palm of the other. “Ow,” she squeaked.

Not wanting to go down in history as a guy who hits like a girl, I put on a pair of work gloves and tried again. This time, with minimal pain, which I hid behind my macho image, the wrench spun, and in seconds the plug was free.

It was clean as a whistle.

A half an hour later we knew that all seven Champion plugs were clean. Only the single Tempest plug was left. The one that her mechanic replaced two flight hours ago. And the prime suspect in our troubles. The plug that we couldn’t reach. The plug that was causing a storm worth of trouble.

The sun was setting. It was Sunday. Lisa had three classes to teach in the morning, and I was skating on thin ice on a story deadline with one of my editors, and really needed to send the morning writing. But I’ve left something out. All throughout this misadventure there’s been a background radiation of panic. Lisa is on the brink of trying to finish her license. She’d signed up for lessons with a flight school in Santa Fe, in her plane, for nearly every day of the winter break from the college where she teaches. She’s arranged for a place to stay over there, got ahead on laundry and packed clothes, bought groceries, cleared her schedule of any other responsibilities, and hired a cat sitter.

OK. I made up the part about the cat sitter. That’s the great thing about cats, they take care of themselves pretty well if you need to be away for a few days.

But now, all of that was in jeopardy. Her plane was grounded.

Lisa stood looking at Warbler, silent, deflated but not defeated. Not being a woman to give up easily, she rallied. “I going to Adrian’s tonight. Maybe he’ll have something different. Or maybe he can drill out one of these sockets deeper. Or we’ll go to every store in town. I’ll call the college and have someone fill in. Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of this.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Aw, heck… pick me up on your way by.”

The next morning, bearing a pouch of borrowed tools, she dropped by the house and picked up Rio (who by now wanted to witness the next chapter in person, rather than by text) and I up, and we headed out. We brought a picnic lunch, figuring on an all-day maintenance fest, including a possible round of musical sparkplugs to rule in or rule out a mechanical failure on a sparkplug that otherwise looked clean. Debs, who was taking Grandma Jean to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Fe was on standby to bring us replacement plugs if needed. It was hall hands on deck.

Two minutes after we arrived at SXU with Adrian’s extra deep sockets, with a heavy thump of Lisa’s gloved hand, the Tempest in a tea pot was off the engine. It was coated with oil.

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After following the cleaning directions—which involved gas sumped from the tanks, a wire brush, carburetor cleaner, and a piece of paper—we towed Warbler out, buttoned up the hangar, and Lisa fired him up.

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to warm up, she performed a mag check.

It was perfect.

Problem solved. Or was it? Why did the plug foul with oil so quickly? Did she need new piston rings? Or worse, a new cylinder? In either case, a break-in flight would be required. This was not looking good for the home team or for Lisa’s intensive flight training plans.

Lisa called her mechanic again to report our discovery. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he told her. And he had a theory. He knew her engine was older. Probably the piston rings weren’t the best. But he got to thinking that perhaps with the long warm up times at low RPM during our recent cold weather, more oil was slipping past the piston than could be burned off the plug. He suggested she warm up the plane at a higher RPM and see what happened. He also suggested a post-flight mag check, if the plug got fouled during a flight, it could be cleaned before the next flight. She could clean as needed, at least until her week-long intensive training was done.

So with the problem fixed in no time, and with a picnic lunch and the full day ahead of us, there was nothing left to do but have a plane party.

Then sit back and relax.

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The horse had a shoe. The warrior was off to battle. The kingdom was safe.

Until the next lost nail.

 

Horsing around for horsepower

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” cried Shakespeare’s grounded Richard III at the bloody Battle of Bosworth.

In later centuries, author James Baldwin tells us that an entire mythical kingdom was lost through a chain of events that began “for want of a nail” to hold a horseshoe.

But no horsing around, although it’s a horse of a different color, we lost our horsepower, and—like King Richard the Third, we were grounded. And like Baldwin’s lost kingdom, it was from the lack of the simplest implement. Not a nail, in our case; our flight was lost for the want of a wrench.

Naturally, like it always happens when these things occur, it was the loveliest day to fly you can imagine. The sky was clear. It was chilly, but not cold. The wind gods must have overslept, as the long grasses beyond the taxiway stood tall and still like sentinel soldiers.

Breakdowns never happen when the weather sucks and you don’t want to fly anyway.

It all started out when my plane friend Lisa was planning on some last-minute landing practice, with me along as her safety pilot, before her burst of intensive training with a real flight instructor, which was set for pretty much every day of her college’s winter break. With a stereo screeches we pulled her south-facing hangar doors back to let in the pale white winter sunlight.

We pre-flighted Warbler: Carefully checking the pitot tube, static ports, alerions, rudders, elevator, landing gear, exhaust, and prop. We sumped the fuel tanks and double-checked the oil level. Getting a plane ready to fly takes time. Airplanes aren’t like cars. You can’t just drive to the airport and jump into your plane and fly. Well, you can, but such carelessness often ends badly. As they say, if your car breaks down, you can pull to the side of the road. If your plane breaks down, you can’t pull to the side of the sky.

All in readiness, we pulled Warbler out, buttoned up Lisa’s hangar, and climbed aboard,

Lisa ran through the short and simple engine start checklist: Opening the fuel cut off, reaching behind me to turn on the master switch (like with many Ercoupes, Warbler’s master is in the original odd-ball location in the baggage compartment behind the pilots), turning the ignition key to “both,” giving the engine two slow shots of prime, then reaching over practically into my lap to pull the starter handle—which is arguably located on the wrong side of the plane.

The prop swung in a lazy arc. The engine coughed once, then took hold. Unlike Tess, who’s sometimes a hard plane to start, Warbler is always eager to go.

But this morning something didn’t sound quite right. Or maybe it didn’t feel quite right. The vibrations through the airframe were different. The symphony of noise not quite in tune. Still, the oil pressure gauge lazily came off the mark and sauntered into the green. Slowly the vibrations settled down. The symphony got their act together, except perhaps for one rogue violin.

But the oil temperature needle lay firmly against the peg. Warm up was going to take a while. Winter flying in Warbler takes patience.

We busied ourselves with getting our headsets plugged in and making small talk. When at long last the temperature of the oil was at least detectable, Lisa taxied from her little patch of crumbling asphalt in front of her hangar, across the gravel, and onto the smooth surface of Taxiway Foxtrot; which you’d only know was Taxiway Foxtrot if you were based at SXU. For years, the taxiway was labeled with a proper yellow and black sign with a large capital F, but for whatever reason the sign was taken down and not replaced during the most recent remodeling in 2014. We still call it Foxtrot, but for the benefit of visitors, add “by the hangars” to all our radio calls.

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Once safely onto the smooth, gravel-free taxiway, Lisa pulled the parking brake, a long handle on the floor between the pilots, and locked it by pulling a knob on the panel. Then she slowly pushed the throttle forward and Warbler’s engine spooled up, the propwash back off the propeller making him jerk, sway, and buck. First, she checked the carb heat, then she reached over to the ignition switch. Although this switch has a key, that’s where the similarity to your car’s ignition switch ends. Well, that assumes that your car still uses a key. Mine doesn’t. It uses a magic wireless box the size of a Zippo lighter. But I digress.

Cars traditionally have ignition switches with two positions: On and Off. Airplanes have four positions: On and Off, plus a position called Right, and a position called Left. This is because of one of the unique safety features of airplane engines: Each cylinder has not one, but two sparkplugs. And each of these sparkplugs is run by a separate and independent magneto. In Warbler’s engine, the top sparkplugs in each cylinder are run by one mag and the bottom plugs in each cylinder are run by another mag, the idea being that if one mag fails, the engine will keep running. In fact, you may recall that not too long ago, Lisa had some adventures with one of her magnetos, so it was damn lucky for her that our aviation forefathers had the good foresight to provide her with two.

Anyway, before flight, pilots test these dual systems to ensure that both are working properly. This is done by increasing the power to a high level and shutting off first one, then the other, set of plugs. Typically, a small RPM drop is seen. If one of the mag systems faileds, when you isolate it, the engine stops. Which is why we test the system while we are still on the ground.

Lisa checked the first mag and all was well. Then she checked the second. Suddenly, the orchestra rioted. The RPM dropped a ton and the plane shook like a wet dog.

We knew at once what was wrong. We had a fouled plug. Only three of Warbler’s four cylinders were firing. We knew it was a plug, not a mag problem, because the engine was still running, even if badly. We didn’t know about the plug before the mag check, because the second plug in the cylinder was firing when both the mags were on.

And we also knew it was a fouled plug because, frankly, this wasn’t our first rodeo. In fact, we’d been riding in this very rodeo not two weeks before in Santa Fe, when we picked Warbler up following the installation of his new tail. One of the plugs was fouled with oil then, but the plane had only flown two hours since.

Lisa uttered a few choice words about airplanes, airplane mechanics, and the nature of the universe.

I whipped out my iPhone and Googled the instructions for trying to clear a fouled plug by burning off whatever is fouling it. Basically, this involves throttle and mixture combinations to increase the heat in the engine, but I knew it was a lost cause. Ercoupe engines aren’t really powerful enough to generate the kind of heat needed to clear a fouled plug. It failed when we tried this two weeks ago, and it failed when Lisa’s mechanic repeated the experiment, but we tried anyway on the theory that there couldn’t be too much crap on a sparkplug so recently cleaned. At least, assuming it was the same plug giving us trouble. Once we tried. Twice we tried. Thrice we tried. Just like Uncle Goggle recommended.

And as before, we failed. There was nothing left to do but to taxi back to the hangar and call Lisa’s mechanic.

He allowed as how it sounded like a plug again. And he suspected a particular one, the plug in the bottom of the right-aft cylinder, which had been oil-fouled, although he admitted that it might be one of the others that he didn’t check, as he stopped checking them once he found a problem. He offered to come over the following week, unless in the meantime we wanted to pull the plug and see if it was dirty. Always handy with a wrench, Lisa opted for that, and her mechanic talked her though the process.

And this is where we get back to horses.

We disconnected the electrode lead and, using a socket wrench, tried to remove the sparkplug. But there was a problem. The socket of the socket wrench wasn’t long enough. It didn’t reach the nut on the sparkplug.

Over the next 48 hours, I would learn more about sparkplugs than I had previously learned in my entire lifetime, but here’s the only thing you need to know for the moment: Aviation sparkplugs come in two common brands, Champion and Tempest. Champion plugs have a nut in the middle of the plug. Any garden variety socket wrench will easily reach the nut to remove the plug. Tempest plugs, however, have the nut all the way at the base of the plug, beyond the reach of standard sockets, and as we’d learn the hard way, also beyond the reach of “deep” sockets, as well.

But I’ve been long winded today, so the hunt for the nail to shoe the horse, to send the rider into battle, to save the kingdom, will have to wait until next week…

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

A real zero

He’s slow to pick up speed. The off-white hand of the airspeed indicator is creeping up the dial ever so slowly, as if the landing gear were rolling over wet grass, not over smooth asphalt. Huh. The power is good. The Tach reading right where it should be. The roar of the engine steady and strong through the heavy walls of my headset. The runway stripes are zipping toward me, under me, with increasing vigor. The yoke is light in my hand. My senses tell me I’m picking up speed. But the airspeed indicator says I’m only going… thirty-five miles per hour?

Boy, these big, wide runways really mess with your senses. I glace left. There’s a lot of asphalt beyond the wingtip. Santa Fe’s Runway 20 is twice the width of my home base’s widest runway. That’s an extra 75 feet.

Still… Warbler is eating up quite a bit of this wide runway… here comes the north ramp already… and I’m still on the ground. Not that there’s a shortage of runway in front of me, but what’s going on here? Power is good. Engine sounds fine. Still, here we are, more than a thousand feet down the runway and I’m going only 40 miles per hour. How can that be? Think! The plane is light. Quarter tank of fuel in each wing. No cargo… Only me onboard.

Ah, here we go! The nose is finally lifting… But wait. I’m still at 40. He shouldn’t be ready to fly yet. Not in these conditions. There’s hardly any headwind worth mentioning. This is all very strange. Very unusual.

The runway center stripes zip under the cowl with increasing urgency.

Tentatively, I pull back on the yoke and Warbler leaps from the runway, a stone shot from a trebuchet. Holy cow! The wings rock as I pass through an air pocket, I level them and steal a quick glance at the panel. My airspeed is now zero.

Zero?

The airspeed dial’s off-white needle is pointing straight up, giving me the middle finger.

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What.   The.   Hell… ?

They say it takes five seconds for a pilot to recognize when something has gone terribly wrong in an airplane, and to react to it. I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t time it. But I can testify that there’s definitely a deer-in-the-headlights moment while the brain deals with the unexpected. Before the body springs into action.

Of course, I hardly sprang into action. Actually, I did nothing. In hindsight, I should have chopped power and dropped back onto the runway. Assuming that I had had enough of it left to safely land and stop. I can’t say whether I did or didn’t, because I never considered it. Instead, I simply flew the plane, which is a legitimate response, and one of the first things you’re taught to do when something goes wrong.

At that moment, while I was processing all the conflicting data around me, the tower called, “Ercoupe 116, turn southwest, proceed on course.”

I think not. Time to end this test flight and get back on the ground. I thumbed the mike button, “Uh… 116 would like to return to the field.”

The response was immediate: “Make right traffic, Runway 20.”

Up to this second, I’ve been flying on auto pilot. Not a fancy mechanical marvel, but the martial arts muscle memory of tasks repeated time and again until the body does what’s needed without the brain wasting a neuron on it. But now it’s sinking in that I have no idea if I’m slow, fast, or just right. It’s a perverted aeronautical version of Goldie Locks and the Three bears.

Of course, in the old days pilots didn’t have airspeed indicators. Planes predate all of our gadgets. What was it my forbearers did to judge speed? Oh yes. They listened to the song of the slipstream across the bracing wires, the iconic “wind in the wires.”

No wires on an Ercoupe.

It suddenly dawns on me that rather than being an annoyance, this is a potentially dangerous situation. Sure, unlike most planes, if they get too slow ‘Coupes don’t stall. Not if they’re rigged right. Of course, Warbler has a brand-new tail. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m conducting a FAR 91.407 (b) post-major maintenance test flight to ensure that his flight characteristics haven’t changed. To ensure that he is  rigged right. Still, even perfectly rigged ‘Coupes develop what’s often called “profound” sink rates when they get too slow. Something to be avoided close to the ground like I am.

I’m not scared. Not at all. I’ve got a lot of time in these birds, and a fair bit in this very serial number. But I know I’ve got to think smart. I keep the throttle to the fire wall and hold the nose near the horizon. Screw the climb rate. Screw the pattern altitude. Gentle bank right. Level off. The runway drops behind my twin tails. Now a second turn. Nice and easy.

Should I let the tower know? They already suspect trouble. I told them this was a post-maintenance shakedown when I called for clearance. Should I advise them that I’ve lost my airspeed indicator and have no clue if I’m flying 55 miles an hour or 110? Well, what good would that do? It would seem to them a bigger emergency than it really is for me. For me in this plane.

I’m cleared to land. I’ve stayed high, kept the power up, and held the nose low. I know this makes me fast. Fine. I’ll bleed off the speed when I’ve got asphalt inches below my wheels. Down, down, down I come. The giant, wide runway rises up to greet me. I pull back on the yoke and Warbler skims the runway like a stone skipping over the calm waters of a pond, floating forever as taxiway lights shoot by on either side, then he gently settles to earth, rubber kissing the asphalt, still—according to his airspeed indictor—traveling at zero miles per hour.

 

Happiest of Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving! OK. Yeah, right. I know Thanksgiving Day was really yesterday, so I guess I need to say either happy Thanksgiving +1, or happy belated T-day. Either way, as this is the regular publication day closest to the big day, I decided to use it for my T-day post

Today, of course, is actually the oddly named “Black Friday,” and you might expect that with Tess in the Airplane Hospital for extensive repairs after our October mishap, and considering the fact that there’s not been much flying happening in this flying family over the last year, I might be in a mood to match the name of the day today.

But that’s not the case.

First, for anyone who missed the memo, Tess will fly again. The cost of repairs is nearly as much as she cost in the first place, but given all the upgrades we’d undertaken, I had insured her for more. It was a bit of a drawn-out process, with at one point an AIG insurance adjuster complaining to me that “it’s such an old airplane,” to which I bit my tongue and didn’tsay, “Well we sure pulled the wool over your eyes on the plane’s age when you insured it, didn’t we?”

But repairs are now finally underway, so that’s good news, and a huge relief. Of course, it won’t be fast. As we speak, Tess is back in Santa Fe, looking more a wreck than an airplane. Everything forward of the firewall is gone. The prop and cowl are off, the engine dangles on a crane like the corpse of a hanged convict, and the bent engine mount lies on the floor to one side.

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Next, dozens of rivets need to be drilled out to remove large skin panels between the firewall and the front of her wings on each side, exposing the bent stringers—metal supports that run nose to tail—that need to be replaced. New skins need to be cut and formed to the proper shape and riveted onto the fresh stringers. Then a brand new engine mount must be attached and the engine re-hung, which entails reconnecting all the disconnected plumbing and electrical wires. And of course, her main landing gear needs to be reconstructed, as well. This is going to be a loooooong process.

Adding to the potential triggers of a black mood, the next hospital bed over from Tess at the Airplane Hospital is occupied by my second favorite flying machine—Lisa’s boy Warbler. Ironically, Lisa decided to hangar him in Las Cruces for the Ercoupe Nationals, rather than park him on the ramp. I say ironically, because rather than giving shelter as a hangar should, Warbler got damaged by Lisa’s bid to protect him from damage. You see, the FBO hired a guy to paint the hangar, and the painter guy decided there was no reason to take the planes out of the hangar before he sprayed paint all over the place.

Warbler’s glass was destroyed. All of it. The windshield, side doors, top door, back windows. Thousands of pin prick-sized melted pockets in the plexi.

So there’s plenty to be in a black mood about for Black Friday. But instead, I’ve used the downtime to count my blessings. Other than becoming much poorer since becoming an airplane-owning family (and who’s to say we wouldn’t have just pissed the money away on something else, anyway?), and being occasionally stressed out, the airplane has been nothing but healthy dividends on the investment—at least with the proper perspective.

Tessie has changed all our lives. She’s taken us to beautiful places where we’ve had amazing adventures and met fabulous people. It’s only been a few short years—half a dozen if I’m counting right—but it seems like forever. I don’t really have a clear sense of “pre-Tess.” It seems like she’s been part and parcel of the family forever.

For that, I’m thankful this Thanksgiving season. Thankful for the flights of beauty and fun over these past few years, and Thankful that my future promises many more.

 

One hell of a crunch

The ink was still wet on my Private Pilot’s license back in the spring of 1980 when I rolled the Piper Archer onto final for Runway 03 at KDRO southeast of Durango, Colorado. I was wearing my new headset, the first one I ever purchased. Not a sensible one, mind you. Not one that would help reduce the din in a cockpit installed behind the ultimate noise maker. No. The one I bought was a one-ear, corporate jet pilot-style headset with a skinny boom mike.

It wasn’t practical, but, damn, I looked good wearing it.

It also featured something totally new to me: A push-to-talk switch that attached to the yoke with a piece of Velcro. Prior to that, all my aviation radio experience was using CB radio-style microphones that hung on a clip at the bottom of the panel.

The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: The runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Rather, it was a dozen feet lower. As the plane lost lift, instead of softly kissing the asphalt, it dropped sickeningly from the sky with a rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late. I gripped the yoke tightly, accidently triggering the new push-to-talk switch and, as the plane hit the pavement with teeth jarring effect, broadcast the word “Crunch” for the whole world to hear.

It’s one of those things people never let you live down.

Fast forward to last week. After an hour or so of flying Tess for the pure joy of plying the sky, I was returning to my home base. It was late morning as the clouds were lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed, hanging low to the ground for hours after the sun rose. But now they were small, widely scattered, and high. The wind was light from the south. There were a few bumps, but nothing to write home about.

I rolled onto final for Runway 19. The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: Someone had moved the runway.

At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with. After more than 782 hours flying this airplane, I somehow set up my worst landing since 1980. Instead of softly kissing the asphalt, Tessie dropped sickeningly from the sky with that rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late.

She slammed down on the pavement with teeth jarring effect. I heard a double crunch from the landing gear, left and right. Felt the punch. Up the gear strut, across the main spar, up into the seat, and through my spine. Then Tess sprang back into the air before dizzyingly falling to earth a second time, for a second pair of crunches. A second pair of seismic shocks. Again, I was catapulted into the air. Power now fully up, she wallowed for a moment, then regained her airplane pride and shot down the runway, slowly gaining altitude. I banked wide and slow, coming back over the runway to reassure myself that I hadn’t left any parts of my landing gear behind, then came around into the pattern and landed again. Which, with two bounces, I guess was the third landing of the day. This time the runway was where it was supposed to be and Tess kissed the pavement softly.

I taxied to the apron and shut down. The latent reverberation of the pair of heavy hits still quivering in my spine, I thanked the ghost of designer Fred Weick for his decision to build the ‘Coupe with robust trailing link landing gear. I slid the door down into the belly, climbed out onto the right wing and dropped to the ground. I ducked under the wing and inspected the gear. It looked fine. Irrationally, I looked up at the bottom of the wing. Nope. No dents in the wing from the gear. I moved around to the other side. It was fine, too. Then I looked to the nose gear.

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

I stared dumbfounded at my nose wheel faring, which appeared to have been nearly shot away by Arab terrorists.

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What… the… hell…?

But that was only the beginning. The big story wasn’t the blown-out back of the faring. No, the big story was at the other end. The very tip of the nose faring was chipped away. Hardly damage worth looking at, it took me a few minutes to process the cause: My own propeller had taken a bite out of the faring.

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I stood to one side and studied the back of my spinner. It wasn’t parallel with the nose, a sure sign of an issue with the engine mounts. Over time, the rubber mounts tend to compress from the weight of the engine and need to be replaced, but these are only six months old. Still, I popped open the cowl, and sure enough, the engine mounts had collapsed. I guess the impact of the hard landing squashed them like bugs. I could feel my wallet getting lighter by the moment.

I had no idea.

The prop now clear of the nose faring, I taxied back to my hanger and emailed my mechanic, who in addition to being an A&P, holds the prestigious IA, or Inspection Authority. I let him know what happened and sent him photos. Then more photos. Then more photos still. He judged the plane safe to ferry. Two days later, I delivered Tess to the two men I had been hoping not to see for a few months, and they got to work. They meticulously inspected the inside of the engine compartment, looking at the firewall for wrinkles (none), each joint of the engine mount for cracks (none), and who knows what else. Then they got to work changing the mounts, discovering in the process that I’d managed to bend the robust pair of bolts in the bottom mounts.

Quite the crunch.

When it was all done, the spinner back still wasn’t perfectly parallel to the cowl, suggesting one of two possibilities: Either it never was, or the entire engine mount had been bent. My guys told me to fly for a while and see if the trim, handling, or speed had changed.

I flew home.

Now we have to detour into envy for a minute, before the rest of the story unfolds. My hangar neighbor, Lisa, has a very different hangar from mine. My hangar has a largely gravel floor, with only a small square of concreate for the plane’s landing gear to perch on. I have some power plugs. But no lights. None of this ever bothered me.

Until Lisa moved in next door.

You see, her hangar has wall-to-wall concrete, and bright, wonderful lights on the ceiling. It’s also insulated. Apparently, at some point in the distant past, NASA used to launch weather balloons from our airport, and they upgraded one of the hangars. NASA is now gone and the upgraded hangar is Warbler’s nest.

I never needed lights until I spent some time in Lisa’s hangar. But not wanting to attempt to install many banks of fluorescent tubes twenty feet off the ground (I know my limits… sometimes), I purchased some work lights on a tripod from Home Depot while the guys were changing the engine mounts on Tess. After landing, I set up the tripod, attached the lights, and plugged them in. My hangar was filled with soft, warm, wonderful halogen-fueled light. It was so stunningly beautiful I decided to pull up a chair and simply soak in the view.

And that’s when I saw it.

Actually, at first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. An artifact of light, shadow, and reflection. Forward of the wing root was a perfect triangular depression in Tessie’s aluminum skin.

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Eventually, concern trumped entropy, and I rose from my chair, aided by my lightened wallet, and made my way to the plane. I softly ran my fingers along her side and sickeningly felt them side deeply into the depression. This was no trick of the light.

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

“Seeing all we’ve been through up close and personal, you’d think she’d have known better,” said Mom.

“This is what she gets for buying an Ercoupe,” said Rio.

My family is lacking in, you know, basic human compassion. Sure, I knew that sooner or later—probably sooner—Lisa’s Warbler would suffer his first breakdownon her watch. But still, I felt badly for her.

Now, you may recall that the consensus from all the experts we phoned, after pushing Warbler almost a mile across the airport to get him back to his nest, was that he was suffering from a stuck valve; albeit one that was manifesting in a way that no one had really heard of before, what with the prop stuck fast turning one direction, and freely spinning in the other.

But they were all wrong.

This is the Tale: The very next weekend Lisa’s mechanic drove over from Santa Fe with a trunk load full of tools. He did some tests, poked, prodded, and basically did all the stuff that airplane doctors do to sick airplanes. Rio and I hung out in the back of Lisa’s hangar, rocking back and forth in her rocking camp chairs, staying out of the way, and pretending to surf the internet on our iPads.

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

After a bit, her wrench-turner decided to fire up the plane. We helped pull Warbler out of his hangar and he fired right up. Lisa was in the cockpit, the mechanic, Rio, and I arranged in a loose ring around the plane, heads cocked, ears aimed at the engine. It sounded, well, not quite right. Or did it? I’d rarely been outside of Warbler listening to his powerplant sing.

This was followed by a comic series of hand signs and pantomimes between Lisa and her mechanic. It became pretty clear that they weren’t speaking the same language. The various finger pointing, hand swirling, and gestures mimicked two drunken deaf people leaving a bar and arguing in sign language over whether or not to call a cab. She was saying that in the cockpit, the noise was back. He was saying that outside, it sounded fine.

Rio looked at me and shrugged one shoulder. At least he and I were talking the same language.

Eventually Lisa throttled up and then we all knew something was amiss. In Warbler’s tongue, he made it clear that something was very wrong with his engine. The mechanic moved his hand quickly back and forth across his throat and suddenly he and Lisa were speaking the same language. She cut the engine.

I was secretly relieved. Airplanes sometimes behave themselves for their mechanics, only to act up again as soon as the “parent” is out of the room. I was afraid the man would find nothing, leave, and suddenly Warbler would be back to his antics. At least—no matter what the problem might be—the mechanic was now witness to it, could hopefully figure it out, and then fix it.

The sun beating down, we pushed Warbler back into the shade of his hangar. The mechanic started rocking the prop back and forth when some movement in the engine compartment caught his eye. I missed what he said, but a moment later his head was inside the engine compartment on one side, and Lisa’s head was inside the engine compartment on the other side.

Now, if you don’t already know this, the latest and greatest in airplane engines is about as technically evolved as a 1932 gasoline-powered lawn mower. They haven’t changed much in eons. Of course, Warbler’s engine is only one year younger than Warbler himself. He was born in 1946, and his current engine rolled off the Continental assembly line a year later in 1947. I guess engines can’t really roll off of assembly lines, now can they? Well, however it was moved off, it was originally bolted onto the nose of a brand-spanking-new Cessna 140. That airplane later got an upgrade to a more powerful engine, and the cast-off original engine from that plane somehow found its way to Lisa’s plane in the following decades.

And you think your family history is complicated.

But back to engine tech: An airplane engine generates power from controlled explosions of a gas and air mixture in each cylinder, which drives the piston downwards. The match for these explosions is the spark plug. Airplane spark plugs get their sparks from spinning magnets called magnetos. If the magneto were to stop, the pulses of electricity they make would stop, the spark plugs would stop sparking, and the airplane’s engine would stop. Which would be bad.

Accordingly, airplanes have two magnetos. Just for in case.

The magnetos are bolted to the back of the engine and are driven by gears inside the crankcase. Once the engine is running, itis spinning the mags that keep it running. It’s really quite clever. At least until one of your two magnetos comes completely apart.

And that’s what happened to Warbler. All four screws that held the two clamshell halves of the right magneto together were missing, the case had come apart, and the mechanism was shredded and stripped.

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Luckily—if these kinds of breakdowns can have any luck about them at all—the damage was to the outside end of the mag, not the part where it attaches to the engine. Those gears were all fine.

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The solution was ordering a new mag. Well, returning the half-demolished “core” and purchasing a refurib’d replacement. “What’s this going to cost me?” Lisa asked her mechanic.

He shrugged, “I dunno. Probably a thousand bucks.” Then after a few beats of silence he added, “All airplane parts cost a thousand bucks.”

Of course, add to that two house calls, as Warbler isn’t flyable with one mag off, and the innards of his engine exposed to the elements…

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Her mechanic wrapped up the damaged mag in a small blanket, like an orphan baby, and drove away in a cloud of dust. Tess still broken down in another city, there was nothing left to do but break out the bourbon.

Now I know what you are thinking: How the heck could all four screws work loose? Did someone forget to replace them after working on the mag? We’ve asked ourselves that; over and over and over again. But like the question about whether or not there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, this is one of those questions we will never likely learn the answer to. On the surface, it looks like a maintenance failure. Like someone forgot to put the screws back in. But looking though the logs, the mags hadn’t been worked on for a looooongtime. So on the one hand it seems unlikely that all the screws could fall out, but on the other hand, if they were never there, how could the plane have flown so long?

Before every takeoff, pilots independently check both mags by using the ignition key to run what is called a mag check. Lisa was religious about doing hers. The right mag always ran rougher, as one or the other of the pair often do in airplanes, but the darn thing was always running. Heck, it was running when she did the engine runup for her mechanic right before the whole mess was discovered. We spent a lot of time talking about the flight hours and the various maintenance log entries from before and after Lisa took over as caretaker of Warbler.

In fact, we spent the next two weeks doing nothing but that until her mechanic came back to SXU with a shinny “new” mag. He bolted it on, then fussed around with the prop and a small beeping box, adjusting the timing of the mag so it would spark neither too early nor too late.

When he was done, it was out into the sun for Warbler, for an engine test. He sang his throaty song, clear and bright. Even on the right mag alone. Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. The problem with the mag didn’t rule out the possibility that there was alsoa valve problem. One that wouldn’t show up until after the engine had been running at full power for a while. A test flight was needed.

Now, Lisa’s mechanic is a pilot, too. Some flying mechanics insist on test flying their work, others don’t. He’s one of those that don’t.

As we hadn’t broken out the bourdon yet, I pulled up my big boy pants, pulled on my Chuck Yeager boots, and climbed into Warbler’s cockpit.

“Stay within gliding distance of the runway,” Lisa’s mechanic told me.

Roger that.

I spent the next half hour circling the field by myself, bored to death. It was bumpy as the dickens. Finally, fuel running low, Warbler and I returned to earth. There was no valve problem.

Lisa paid off her mechanic and he disappeared in a cloud of dust. She turned to me and said, “I really need to fly. You know, not train. Just. Go. Fly. Understand?”

I understood. We climbed in, belted in, and headed out. She carefully checked her mags and ran up her engine. The takeoff on Runway One-Ninner was smooth and as she turned and flew down the Pecos River Canyon south of the airport the choppiness I’d experienced in the atmosphere over the airport disappeared.

I turned and looked at Lisa at Warbler’s helm, and watched a metamorphosis take place. For the last two weeks, Lisa had been a woman of stone. Her eyes narrow, scowling, dull and flint-like. Her jaw tight, the usual smile absent, replaced by a horizon-straight slit. Her shoulders hunched tight to her neck. Now that all began to melt away. Her shoulders relaxed and dropped, her eyes widened and lit afire anew, and a smile danced at the corners of her mouth, slowly spreading like the growing dawn until her entire face was a picture of pure joy.

The magic of flight was erasing the stresses of doubt, fear, and expense that had hung over her like a dark shadow for the last two weeks.

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Yeah. They have their challenges, but this is why we own airplanes.

 

One spare isn’t enough

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

But that ear-to-ear smile was not to last.

Now, for background, you need to know that Tess, when it comes to maintenance, has become nearly as much trouble as a Warbird. Yeah. She’s “down.” Again. I would’a thought that for a woman of her age hot flashes would be a thing of the past, but just days out of that killer annual earlier this summer, she began to overheat. Big time.

I’ll spare you the pain of the details, and myself the PTSD of recounting this latest woe, but the bottom line is that two of her four nearly-new cylinders have to be pulled off. According to my logbook, I took her to her new shop about six weeks ago, and it’s likely to be several more weeks before she’s back in my hands (or I’m back in hers, as the case may be).

But that said, my logbook is hardly empty of Ercoupe time since. In fact, I’ve been flying a lot. How can that be? Well, the “family” has a spare airplane.

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Yep. I’ve been flying with my buddy Lisa as the safety pilot in her plane, helping her polish her skill set prior to her next round of formal training. Actually… Come to think of it, Lisa’s skill set has become so polished that I haven’t had to touch the controls in… well, I can’t remember how long it’s been. But each time we fly, she’s kind enough to let me take the controls at some point so that I can feel like a real pilot again.

Most days, after Lisa flies, Rio takes over the left seat and we go up and polish the maneuvers that his flight instructor is teaching him as well. We had been doing Rio’s training in Tess, but with her in the Airplane Hospital again, Lisa loaned him the keys to Warbler.

We all started joking that it’s a good thing we have a spare airplane. But as it would turn out, one spare Ercoupe isn’t enough. And that’s why Lisa lost her smile.

So much for background. Now on to today’s Plane Tale…

 

We rose early—me from the master suite and Lisa from the guestroom—and met at the coffee pot, bleary-eyed. We aren’t morning people either of us, but the early morning sky favors flight training. Winds tend to be light, and thermal turbulence from the sunbaked landscape hasn’t started to form yet. But today, it was clearly a waste of blissful sleep. A quick look out the window showed that the weather was not as forecast.

You can’t trust weathermen and psychics.

Still, we’ve learned that the weather at my house (which is 20 miles closer to the field than Lisa’s, hence the use of the guestroom on flying days) and the weather at the airport can be so different as to be in alternate universes, so properly caffeinated, we headed out.

Headed out into weather that grounded the crows that live on the airport beacon tower next to the hangers.

So instead of pre-flighting Warbler, we dumped the trash in the terminal, restocked the fridge and the snack baskets, and looked to see how many new pins had been placed in the large flight planning chart on the wall, the one that visiting pilots are invited to mark their home airports on. Then we hung out in Lisa’s hangar, mine being empty. She also has windows that look out to the East, allowing me to keep one eye on the weather while surfing the internet on my flight pad.

As the sky began to lift the wind came up.

“You know what?” said Lisa, “this isn’t happening for me today. But if you want to fly for a change, I’d be happy to come along for a ride.” She dangled Warbler’s keys in front of my face.

If there’s a pilot who can turn down an offer like that, I’ve never met him. Or her.

I had planned to do a toilet paper chase after Lisa’s practice. That’s where you fly up to around 10,000 feet, chuck a roll of (fully biodegradable) toilet paper out of the plane (over and empty area) then dive on the streamer and try to cut it with your wing as it flutters to the ground. It’s easier said than done, but every bit as much fun as it sounds. And I’ve actually succeeded at doing it.

The ceiling was starting to break up, so I chucked a roll of toilet paper in the back and up we went. It felt strange to be in Warbler’s left seat.

But as we climbed into the murky air, it was clear that this was not a day to venture up to 10,000 feet. I opted for barnstorming instead. Low and slow down on the deck we zipped between sandstone buttes, circled the ruins of abandoned ranch houses, and did lazy S-turns up and down empty dirt roads to nowhere—soaking in the view and the feel of flight.

Our RMP was acting up a bit, first high, then low. I didn’t give it much thought. Warbler has a new throttle and I figured that we didn’t have the friction lock set right yet.

I figured wrong.

“Thanks for letting me take the left seat,” I told Lisa.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m enjoying being a passenger for a change. Over here is where I fell in love with flying.”

Finally, gas running low, it was time to head back to the nest.

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

On base it seemed like I needed a lot more back pressure on the elevator than normal, and we also ended up landing long. But the touchdown was smooth, the moment between flying and rolling almost undetectable.

Then the noise started.

Or maybe it was there all along and we just couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. It was a flapping-type sound. I cocked my head to one side. “Do you hear that?” I asked Lisa. Then I pulled one ear cup away from my head, trying to hear it better, trying to process what it might be. As Warbler rolled down the runway, it seemed to get louder.

We needed fuel, so I headed for the far end of Eight, where Taxiway Charlie leads to the terminal and the pumps.

I should have turned tail and headed back to the hangars. Hindsight.

As we crossed One Niner, the noise was really distinctive. It sounded like a loose cowl banging in the slip stream. I decided to shut down right where we were. Nearly a mile from either the hangars or the ramp.

It never occurred to me that the engine would never restart again.

I pulled back the throttle and the mixture, then turned off the mags. With an abrupt shudder the prop snapped to attention, stopping at 12 o’clock, not making the lazy spin down we are used to. With trepidation, I slid the top of the three-piece canopy to the right, climbed out onto the wing, dropped to the ground, and came around to the front of the plane.

Everything looked normal. No loose cowl pieces.

For some reason, I reached up to pull Warbler’s prop down to the normal position.

It was stuck fast. Excalibur in the stone. My mind couldn’t process what my hands and eyes were telling me. One moment the engine is running; the next moment, after shutting it down myself, the prop is stuck fast.

I didn’t know what to do, but attempting a restart was out. I looked far to the West at the distant Lego block of the hangar. Then I looked far to the South at the distant Lego block of the terminal. This was a stupid place to shut down.

So like hippie college students who ran out of gas on the way back to the dorm, we pushed Warbler back down the taxiway, across One Nine, and back along half the length of Eight. Well, Lisa pushed. I pulled on the stuck prop, using it as a combination tow bar and steering tiller.

It was a long haul, helped by a friendly couple from Arizona headed home from AirVenture, who added some horsepower to the pushing on the last half of the journey.

The slow roll to the hangar seemed to take longer than the flight that proceeded it, but eventually we got Warbler back in his nest, where Lisa collapsed into a little puddle of DNA in the corner. Not to say she reverted to sucking her thumb, or anything—which I probably would have—but there are some things in this world you just can’t do for yourself, and a good example is calling your mechanic to discuss a very expensive-sounding repair on an airplane you really couldn’t afford in the first place, so I offered to make the call. That’s what friends are for.

I got the man on the phone and described what had happened. The prop would turn backwards as much as I wanted it to, but going in the normal direction of travel, when the blade reached 12 o’clock it stopped cold.

The mechanic said he’d never heard of anything like that before.

He had me check the oil. It was fine. Then one or two other things. Finally he said, let it cool down, then see if the prop frees up.

As we had time to kill, I starting calling various experts we knew in the Ercoupe community. The first guy thought it sounded like a broken crankshaft, about the worst thing that could happen. But I didn’t think so. Sure, if the prop were totally frozen, or totally loose. But half and half? Of course, all I know about airplane breakdowns is things that have broken down on mine. I was in uncharted territory here.

The next three guys I called had never heard of such a thing, either. Great. But all three of them instinctively felt we were seeing a bizarre manifestation of a stuck valve, a serious but not fatal mechanical issue.

Hours later, the engine cool, the prop spun freely again.

The next step? Lisa’s mechanic will have to make a house call. That will happen next weekend. And in the meantime, even with two Ercoupes, we have no plane to fly.

One spare, apparently, is not enough.