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.

 

…and then

The phone rang. OK. It wasn’t the phone. It was an email. And it didn’t ring. It bonged.

It just sounds more dramatic to say the phone rang.

So at the height of my recent engine crisis I emailed everyone I knew asking if they knew what happened to Don’s Dream Machines and if they knew of anyone who might be able to help me out.

One of my trusted wrench turners emailed me two URLs. I clicked on the first one and it was a Continental shop, which makes sense as we run a Continental under the cowl. I fired off an email to them explaining my predicament and what I was after.

I never heard back from them.

When I clicked on the second link it took me to a Lycoming shop—the other large maker of airplane engines. I wondered why on earth my contact would send me there, but fired off the same email to them and proceeded to descend into complete panic.

That night, I got a strange email. It was from a guy named Ken that I didn’t know, the subject line was Race 53, and it contained only one sentence: “William, are you running a c-85 engine now, not a c-90 or 0-200?”

Weird, I thought. Maybe it was a curious reader. Or maybe the spreading grapevine got word of my plight. But either way the writer deserved an answer, so I fired off a one-word reply and forgot all about it.

The next day, after I had committed to the plan of action with a second engine case and some new parts that I told you about last week, I got an email at lunch. It was from a guy named John, who said he’d been talking to the guy named Ken, who supposedly had been talking to me. Well, I guess the exchange of 14 words in two emails is a conversation nowadays. Anyway, John’s email had a sig file that showed he worked for the Lycoming outfit that I had emailed.

Ah-ha! Now the pieces were coming together. Anyway, he had a few questions and wanted to know my target date. I’d already decided on a course of action, but it’s always a good idea to keep all options open, plus he had taken the time to write, so he deserved the dignity of a reply.

I answered his questions and told him I needed the engine yesterday.

He was kind enough to respond to that, saying that yesterday wasn’t really an option, but that “we might be able to put something together fairly quickly” and to let him know if I wanted him to keep pursuing it.

I wrote back to ask what his definition of “fairly quickly” was.

Later than evening, I was briefing Rio on all that went on that day and he was questioning the wisdom of a Lycoming shop building a Continental engine for us, so we went to their website for the first time since I flashed on to use their contact page to email them.

In my haste I had misread. They weren’t Lycoming.

They were Ly-Con.

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And as we explored their website I was blown away. Their customer list is a virtual who’s who of air racers and airshow performers. Everyone who’s anyone seemed to be there. Reno Racers. Red Bull Racers. The nation’s top airshow performers.

“Holy crap,” said Rio.

This all-star engine shop was talking to me about building an engine for Race 53, and I was hardly giving them the time of day.

“I’ve been a dick,” I said to Rio.

“I want them to build our engine,” said Rio.

I sat down and wrote a nice email outlining what I needed in detail. As I did I worried more about what it would cost than how long it would take. Then I fired off a second email to my mechanic—stop the presses! Don’t order those parts just yet. I might have another option.

That was Thursday night. To make the deadline work on the second case option my guys cooked up, the parts had to be ordered on Monday.

At 6:00 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:05 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:10 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:15 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:20 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:25 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

We finally made contact at 10:10 a.m. I told John my predicament on the deadline and my need to make a decision by day’s end. He promised a quote by 5 p.m.

It never came.

It was the weekend, so I figured I could hold off a bit. Monday rolled around. I waited until noon. Then until three. Finally I had to make a decision. I sure liked the sound of Ly-Con, but at the same time, if they can’t keep a promised deadline on a quote, how can I trust them to honor a deadline on an engine rebuild? I called my regular team and told them to order the parts.

We’ve crossed the Rubicon once and for all. We’re going with the second second-hand case from the Ercoupe “junk yard,” and brand-new 0-200 guts, all assembled by a shop in Colorado.

 

Floods, cars, boats, helicopters… and airplane engines

This is how I heard the tale:

It was a storm of biblical proportions. The radio said the storm of the century. Leave your homes. Head for high ground.

The Good Christian sat on his front porch and watched the pounding rain. Watched the muddy river swell and rise. Overflow its banks. Swamp the road. Gurgle up over the gutter. Envelop his sidewalk.

And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Down the road came a Sheriff’s Deputy in a brown patrol car, its red lights flashing through the downpour, water nearly to the top of its wheel wells. The Deputy rolled down his window and shouted to the Good Christian: “Get in the car. I’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, I can’t make you go,” said the Deputy, and he drove off into the deluge.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his second floor. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Across the angry muddy waters that now rose to his second story windowsill came the Coast Guard in a small motorboat. “Get in the boat. We’ll save you,” called the crew.

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the crew, and they motored off into the rain.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his roof. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Out of the angry sky came a National Guard helicopter. The giant olive-drab machine hovered over the roof of the Good Christian’s house, the mighty blades beating back the torrents of rain, its engines drowning out the thunder. And the crew shouted: “Get in the helicopter. We’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the National Guardsmen, and the helicopter rose up and disappeared into the storm.

The waters rose. The roof was awash. The Good Christian retreated to the top of the chimney, but the waters rose again and swept him away, and he drowned.

At the gates of heaven the Good Christian met God. “I believed in you,” wailed the Good Christian, “I had faith in you. I prayed to you to save my life. Why did you let me drown in the flood?”

And God sighed, exasperated, and ticking off the count on his fingers, said, “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I sent a helicopter. What more did you want?”

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What does all of that have to do with me? Well, I’m pretty sure I ignored the car, and I almost sent the boat away, too. Of course my flood is subtler than the swirling muddy waters that drowned the Good Christian, but for some reason the tale came back into my head recently.

Ah, where to start…

I am, bar none, the world’s foremost expert in Ercoupe ownership. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true I first bought one. So please don’t judge me too harshly when I tell you that I bought an airplane that didn’t have complete logs. In my feeble defense, we had had the extraordinarily rare bad luck of being involved in another almost-purchase in which the logs turned out to be forged, so at the time I didn’t have much faith in the paper that goes with the plane, and put more stock in a good inspection. (Which as it turns out, we didn’t get, either.)

I’m telling you this now because you need to know that the history of our engine is a bit of a mystery. We’re not 100% sure how many hours are on it, or when it was last rebuilt. It may be the original engine from 1947. The only thing we know for sure is that the engine is overdue for an overhaul. I’ve known this for a while, but had convinced myself that I could make it through the race season this year and worry about it later.

Then Springfield happened.

Two days ago I was finally back in Santa Fe where most of our maintenance happens. At least our not-broken-down-in-the-field maintenance. I was there for an oil change on the new cylinder and to get a few minor squawks fixed before the next round of races, and the guys wanted to see the pictures I took of the bad cylinder. It was partly professional curiosity, partly injured pride. You see, that cylinder “laid down” three operational hours after they gave it a clean bill of health.

After studying the images, they came to the conclusion that the cylinder was so old it was basically crumbling to dust. The senior mechanic said, “For all we know, these date from the 1950s.” A hair over a year ago one of the other cylinders cracked and had to be replaced. Now a second one collapsed. How much longer before the final two failed? And would they Go West quietly? Or, quite literally, with a bang? And it’s not just cylinders. What about the guts of the engine? The crank and cam shafts, buried deep inside the case out of sight, what sort of shape are they really in? And the bearings that hold them in place and let them move? Oil analysis hasn’t given us any hints of trouble, but… Well, everything about the engine is very old, and we’re asking a lot of it.

The more junior mechanic pulled me aside and said, “If it were my plane, I’d do a major overhaul. Right now.”

Easy for you to say, I thought. Airplane mechanics are paid better than writers, and you have both the expertise and the license to do much of the work yourself.

But the real problem is time. An engine rebuild, called a major overhaul, or MOH, takes months. Time I don’t have. “Not in the middle of race season,” I told him, without another thought.

He was silent for a minute, then said, “You know, if you were just going up and puttering around, or going to the next airport for a $100 hamburger, this would be OK. But not for the kind of flying you do. You guys fly a lot, and far, far away. And the racing is high performance.”

“I’ve invested too much in this season to lose,” I said.

Again he was silent for a minute, then softly said, “Maybe you need to rethink your priorities.”

Get in. We’ll save you from the flood.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I spent an hour picking both their brains, and by the time I drove home, I was feeling like I was playing Russian roulette with my two remaining cylinders. Was the Springfield the boat or the helicopter?

I was facing up to the fact that I needed to do something about Tessie’s engine.

Of course, all my options were bad. One option was that I could just hope for the best and replace anything that broke when it broke. But I fly with my 15-year-old son. I’m not as good a father as I’d like to be, but I don’t want harm to come to him, or to leave him without a father.

I was now spooked enough that the fix-it-as-we-go option was out.

I could just replace the two old cylinders with new ones to get through the race season. They’d be trashed when the MOH came, which couldn’t safely be put off much beyond the end of the season, but it would keep us in the races—unless something failed deeper in the crankcase. Proactively replacing the cylinders would cost four or five thousand bucks. Money, I decided, better put toward the larger bill for a MOH.

My next option was to replace the engine entirely with one that was already overhauled. A bit more expensive, but faster. And there was only one place to go for the best ready-to-hang engine: Don’s Dream Machines. He had a stellar rep in the biz, but he was also missing in action. His website was gone, and the two phone numbers I had for him had been disconnected.

Our engine is not rare, exactly, but not common, either. I emailed all my contacts, but no one knew of anyone who had a quality rebuilt ready to hang.

My lead mechanic put his mind to how to cut time off the project, and came up with two options. First, he located an engine that was purported to be relatively low time, but was missing its logs. It was only $4,000 and could be put on Tessie quickly. Even though it was his idea, he was lukewarm about it, as was I. It seemed to me that we’d just be trading one set of mystery troubles for another. And again, pissing away money that would just have to be spent again. My mechanic was of the opinion that it would be OK for the light flyer, but that we really needed a properly overhauled engine for the kind of flying we do.

His second option was to find a second crankcase (this is the shell of the engine) and then buy, brand new, a bunch of the parts that go into it. Normally, the rebuild shop takes your old engine apart and tries to refurib as many of the innards as possible. My guy’s thinking was that most of the parts in our engine are at, or near, the end of their service lives anyway, and that just “going new” would save time.

Of course it would cost more. Or maybe not. The price quoted for the MOH was the minimum, assuming everything inside the case could be refurib’d. Anything that couldn’t be would need to be replaced, adding both time and money.

I became convinced that the second case option was the best choice of a bad lot. I OK’d the plan. The empty crankcase with full logs was ordered from one supplier. A new crankshaft, connecting rods, and pistons from another. New cylinders will shortly be on their way to the rebuild shop.

How much time will it save? Two weeks, at best. We were still looking at 4-6 weeks. I stared at my calendar for a long time. I didn’t have a hole that big. Summer was filled with the Ercoupe national convention, AirVenture, and four races.

I was going to have to rethink my priorities.

Tess missed last year’s national Coupe gathering, and this year I’m the keynote speaker. I really felt that I need to show up in a Coupe, plus a lot of readers are keen to see Tessie in the flesh. And it’s only a few weeks down the road. We really can’t get started on the rebuild that fast, anyway. Of course, my family’s freaked out now. The plane that only yesterday was a bullet-proof magic carpet, today is a deathtrap. Finally, we agreed that I’d fly out solo to reduce any theoretical risk to others, and also so I could cruise higher to give me a greater glide range should the worst happen. Plus, this is cruise flight: Not high performance balls-to-the-wall racing. The strain on the old engine will be minimal.

When I get home from the convention, we’ll pull the engine—missing the 20th running of the AirVenture Cup, as well as a Georgia race and the Indy race—while a “new” engine is created Frankenstein-like from parts old and new. We’re shooting for having Race 53 ready to run the last race of the summer, in Urbana, five weeks after pulling the engine. It’s a goal, but I’m not holding my breath. Worst-case scenario, I’ll be back in action for the fall races, the last seven of the season.

Or maybe not.

Because the future of our race season will depend on how much this really ends up costing, and how many points my competitor Charles Cluck is up on me by then. In my book, if there’s no chance of winning, there’s no point in spending the money. But Cluck is an oddly honorable guy, which I’m not used to in a competitor. He already bowed out of one race when we broke down. But three? That might be too much to stomach, even for a man of high honor.

Of course, I’m riddled with doubt about my choices, and unsure I chose the right path. Perhaps I should have hung the used engine. Maybe I should have slapped on two more cylinders. Or is my path right, and my timing wrong? Maybe I should have skipped the Ercoupe gathering and pushed to have the new engine ready for the AirVenture Cup.

But despite all my second-guessing, I’m sure of one thing. I’m sure glad to be on the helicopter, looking down on the muddy waters below, instead of standing on the roof watching it disappear into the storm without me.

 

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.

 

For want of a spare

The nose wheel tire is flat as a pancake. Again. I sigh. Then curse. This is my third time at this particular rodeo.

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The first time, my mechanic gave me instructions over the phone on how to remove the nose wheel to bring it to him so he could replace the inner tube. Unlike cars, it’s illegal to patch the inner tube of an airplane tire. Come to think of it, unlike cars, airplane tires still have inner tubes! (Aviation technology historically lags the rest of the world, due to long certification processes and libraries full of rules and regs that never evolve.)

Now, for background, there are actually a handful of maintenance items that pilots are allowed to do, and don’t require a licensed airplane mechanic. For instance, a pilot can change a light blub in an airplane. And a pilot can replace a defective cotter pin. A pilot can also add hydraulic fluid to the reservoir. A pilot can change the battery. And that’s about it.

Oh. Wait. A pilot can also change the tires, or more correctly, “remove, install, and repair landing gear tires.”

Of course to do so, it helps to know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. But with my mechanic’s advice, some creativity, the deployment of a lot of Anglo Saxon English, and with much struggle and lots more grease, Rio—whom I took out of school for the day to help me—and I got the job done, and we drove the removed wheel to Santa Fe for a new tube.

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While I had faith I that could successfully remove the wheel, and get it back on again, I had no particular faith that I could remove the bad tire and tube and put a new one on the wheel. I’ve watched through the windows at the tire shop when I’ve bought new tires for my car. These types of operations require the right equipment and the right know-how. I have neither.

My confidence in my potential for doing that part of the job was not increased by watching my mechanic put the new tube in later that day. Besides, I thought, how often could something like this possibly happen?

The second time we had a flat nose wheel, we were on our way to the AirVenture Cup and we were severely pressed for time. My mechanic offered to make a house call. He and his dog flew over from his airport to our airport and he got us fixed up right away in our own hangar.

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And now, not even a year later, I’m squatting on the ground next to yet another crumpled pile of rubber.

I attach my compressor to the stem of the flat tire and flip on the switch. In no time, I’m at 18 pounds psi on the little tire. I get out the bottle of soapy water and spray the stem. No dice. No simple fix of a loose stem valve. We’ve got a real leak in the inner tube and I’ve got three choices: Remove the nose wheel and take it in for repair—a four hour round trip drive; request a house call; or air up the tire to the max and fly the plane to my mechanic, betting that the tire won’t go completely flat during the one-hour flight.

I immediately reject option three as unnecessarily risky.

Oh. Right. I have a fourth (theoretical) choice: I could put a new tire on the wheel myself, if I had one. Naturally, I decide to take the wheel to Santa Fe.

I lay a soft towel over the horizontal stabilizer of Tessie’s tail and heft three heavy bags of landscaping rock up on top of it. This shifts the center of gravity backwards, offsetting the weight of the engine, and like a child’s teeter-totter, Tess rocks smoothly back and forth on her main gear with the touch of a finger.

This is how airplanes are jacked up to change their nose wheels, although I’m told that the pros use cases of oil instead of landscaping rock.

I settle myself onto the oil-stained concrete floor of the hangar and struggle with the screws that hold the nose pant in place, then start loosening the bolts that hold the axle. My hands become coated with a slick layer of black grease as I remove the various parts. It’s taking longer than I remembered, and I’m not looking forward to the long drive over to Santa Fe and back to the hangar, where I’ll have to reverse the whole process.

That’s when it occurs to me: If this were a car, I’d be putting on the spare right now. Actually if it were a car I’d be calling AAA rather than getting my hands dirty. After all, that’s what I pay them for. But you get my drift.

I decide right then and there that I’m going to buy a spare nose wheel and have it mounted with a new tire and tube. For future flats, I’ll just do a quick change and be on my way. Of course, having a spare wheel will change the course of the universe entirely, because being fully prepared for a quick change, I’ll never have a flat nose gear tire again in my life.

At least, that was what I decided until I saw the price of a new nose wheel. For most planes, a nose wheel runs a few hundred bucks. For whatever reason, for mine, it’s fully two thousand dollars.

If an ounce of prevention buys a pound of cure, how much cure do I get for 2K?

I look into my empty wallet and change my mind.

I think I can learn to put a stupid tire on the damn wheel.

 

Back to Flight School

Tessie is flying perfectly. The controls light and harmonized. I adjust the new trim handle until I can’t feel any pressure coming through the yoke and then I let go. Tess flies straight and true. I bank into a turn to the left and she slides right into it. Silky. Compliant. Very airplane-like.

Aw, hell. Now I have to learn how to fly all over again.

Ever since we first got her, Tessie’s been a handful. A blue and white airplane with a red head’s temperament. She’s always been 100% hands-on, requiring full concentration. To be clear, this is not the way most airplanes are. Most airplanes are dynamically stable. If you let go of the controls, they fly on. If you hit a bump of air and do nothing, they settle down again.

Prior to the latest round of maintenance, if I let go of Tessie’s yoke—even for a few seconds to take off my jacket, she’d snap tail up, roll abruptly to the right, and dive like a Stuka, the World War II German dive bomber that was the terror of the invasion of Poland.

I always knew in my heart that Tess was an extreme member of her tribe, but being an older technology I never expected her to fly like, you know, an airplane. Still, not needing to dive bomb anybody, the Stuka-like behavior was getting old. I suspected that she was “out of rig” in some manner.

The word “rigging” comes to us from the sea, where it refers to all the various ropes, cables, and chains on a sailing ship that control the sails and yard arms. In airplanes, “rigging” is used to describe the harmonized balance of the primary control surfaces: Ailerons, elevator, and rudders and the adjustment of the cables and rods that control them. Quoting Jeff Simon’s Rig it Right: “If your plane is not properly rigged, the aircraft is fighting against itself in flight.”

Rigging is complex and time-consuming, with multiple variables that all interact with, and affect, each other. Most airplanes have rigging specs to guide airplane mechanics in assuring that the rigging is correct.

But as you know, Ercoupes aren’t most airplanes. Heck, they originally shipped from the Erco factory with no manual whatsoever.

Still, I’d been whining about our rigging for a few years, and I guess I finally got through to my mechanic. It might have been my threat to dive bomb his shop. But at any rate, my mechanic re-rigged Tess stem to stern and wing tip to wing tip. His assistant told me he spent days at it, working methodically through all the control surfaces.

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The results?

Now she flies perfectly. Light. Responsive. Eager to please. Not at all the delinquent I’ve come to know and love.

I don’t now how to fly this airplane anymore!

Now that the plane is re-rigged, I guess we’ll have to re-rig the pilot!

 

Machine Gun Kelly

Machine gun fire. I glance over my shoulder to check my “six.” There’s nothing behind me but Tessie’s twin tails and blue sky.

Again the pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of a distant gun. But no tracers streak by, and besides, who would want to shoot down a mild-mannered Ercoupe at this altitude over middle-of-nowhere New Mexico?

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Then it occurs to me. I’m only hearing gunfire when receiving a radio broadcast. A distant crackle. A Lear on approach to Amarillo. More popping. At the end of the pilot’s broadcast, the popping stops and only the dull drone of my engine fills my earphones.

I tune into a nearby AWOS station. In the background, behind the automated weather broadcast is a constant, uniform popping. Like gunfire, but not quite gunfire. A sound almost like… like…

Slowly a possibility dawns on me and I do something I never do in flight.

I reach for the ignition switch.

Aircraft engines are just like old-fashioned lawn mower engines (and nothing like modern car engines) except for the fact that each cylinder has two spark plugs. The purpose of this is safety. In our engine, the top plug in each cylinder and the bottom plug in each cylinder are controlled by separate magnetos—spinning magnets that generate the electrical power to fire the spark plugs. Magnetos themselves are independent of the rest of the airplane’s systems and are highly reliable. Having two of them makes them even more reliable.

Backup upon backup is the battle plan aviation safety is built on.

Speaking of safety, the ignition switch on an airplane has four settings: On and Off, plus Right and Left. Huh? In the On position, both mags fire. In the Right or Left position only one of the two mags fires. This design lets you confirm that both systems are working on the ground as part of your engine “runup” before takeoff. If one system has crapped out, the engine will stop when it is set to the dead mag. When both are working, there’s a small loss of power as you test each independently. If one mag is dead, you need to think twice about your flight, as you are out of backups.

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I gently—being ever so careful not to turn the damn plane off—switch the ignition key to Left only. There’s a slight drop in RPM. But someone on the radio is still trying to shoot me down.

One more gentle click counterclockwise to the Right mag. Suddenly the radio comes in loud and clear. No more Machine Gun Kelly down there on the ground below gunning for me. Back to the left and pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

To the right. Silence.

To the left pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

Somehow, over the radio, I’m hearing the sound of my own spark plugs firing. It isn’t the sound of someone trying to shoot me down. It’s the sound of Tessie’s beating heart keeping me aloft.

I’d heard that this was possible, but had never experienced it for myself. Later, when I looked into it, I discovered that aircraft ignition systems are actually the number one cause of radio interference. It can be caused by the spark plugs themselves, the wires, or the mags.

But regardless of the cause, I knew the cure. I banked left into a gentle turn. Back to the West. Back to Santa Fe. Even though the family plane just came out of a two-and-a-half month maintenance odyssey, it was back to the shop for her.

On the bright side, it’s a beautiful day to fly.

And no one is trying to shoot me down.

 

Test Pilot

When I was in flight school, I read Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Right Stuff. It tells the entwined, but parallel, tales of the Mercury Seven and the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the early days of jet plane development. The thing that impressed my barely post-teenage brain the most about test-flight work wasn’t the fast planes, the high risk, or the higher status; but rather it was the fact—according to Wolfe’s accounts—that women just flocked to test pilots. And not just any kind of women, if you know what I mean.

Right then and there, I decided to become a test pilot.

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

After two and a half months in the shop, the Plane Tales Plane was ready for the air again. Well, maybe. So many things had been done to her that she needed someone to take her up and ensure that all was in proper order. In short, a test flight. And as I have more hours in her than anyone, I was the obvious choice as test pilot.

I didn’t expect a flock of chippies to magically appear and make my day, but I took my responsibilities seriously. Or at least I tried to. Time change having just arrived, it was unaccustomedly dark in my house at 5:30 in the morning as I headed to the airport, and I neglected to grab the notebook that had a carefully drafted flight log designed to make it easy to record observations and to ensure that I didn’t forget to check anything.

Still, I was able to borrow a clipboard from my mechanic and I set off with a tiny tickle of a thrill: Me! A test pilot! (Chest puffs up slightly.)

The sun was barely above the eastern mountains, and yet to warm the chilly ramp, as I did a through pre-flight inspection before mounting up. The step up to the wing was a stretch—new spacers in the landing gear have raised Tessie’s tails to the proper level. Old Ercoupes, like old women, sag over time. Unlike many planes, however, saggy landing gear actually changes the flight characteristics of the ‘Coupe. She’s designed to have a zero angle of attack on the ground, meaning the plane isn’t capable of flight until you lift the nose. Of course, if your gear is saggy, your nose is pre-lifted. It doesn’t make a world of difference on takeoff, but it matters when landing. The Coupe is designed to stay on the ground once you plant it there. This is especially important in crosswind landings.

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Slipping back into the cockpit after such a long absence was heavenly, like collapsing into a favorite comfy chair at the end of a long, hard day. I slid the new smoky grey doors closed above my head and fired up her engine, the throaty rumble music to my ears.

Oil pressure in the green arc, Mr. Test Pilot professionally notes.

While she warms up, I get familiar with my new GPS navigation radio, making sure it can talk to my iPad and smart phone. Then I plug in the remote for my wireless headset, turn the headset on, link the two devices, slide the headset over my head, carefully adjust the ear pieces, and then position the mike in front of my mouth, whereupon I realize I’ve forgotten to put on my hat.

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

I take the headset off and start over, this time with my hat on first. Soon, it’s time to fly. I’m at Santa Fe, which is a controlled airport, so the first order of business is to call ground control and get permission to taxi the plane from the maintenance shop to the active runway.

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

Cleared by the tower, I pull onto Runway 15 and smoothly push the throttle to the firewall for full takeoff power. The plane has been completely “re-rigged.” Every control cable and rod has been adjusted. Also the trim system, a mechanism designed to relieve control pressures on the yoke, has been replaced. I expect the plane to handle differently, but I don’t know how that will manifest.

The Devil’s in the details. This is what being a test pilot is all about. It’s invigorating.

My speed picks up. 35 miles per hour. 40 miles per hour. 45… 50… 55…

Tess is showing no interest in leaving the ground. In the past, her nose reached to the heavens around 55 miles per hour.

60 miles per hour… 65… I’m not alarmed: I know with the tail at the proper height she should stay glued to the runway until I do something about it. I hit 70 miles per hour and I ease back on the yoke.

She jumps into the air. The runway drops beneath us. I ease back a little more on the yoke to increase our climb angle and the yoke sticks. My heart skips a beat. Then the yoke moves smoothly again.

Did I imagine it?

The tower instructs me to turn on course to make way for a commuter jet taking off on the other runway. I bank right. Tess’s left wing lifts smoothly into the deep blue sky, the entire motion silky smooth.

South and west of the airport I put the newly refuib’d plane through the paces. It’s bumpy as hell this morning, winds tumbling off the mountains are creating mechanical turbulence as they ricochet off the buttes and mesas in the foothills. My notes on the clipboard look more like Greg Shorthand than English.

But the new trim system is fabulous. By moving a lever on the left side of the cabin I can drop the plane into a dive or nearly stand her on her tail without using the yoke. With fine adjustments, I can make her hold a level altitude “hands off” while flying slow, at cruise, or at balls-to-the-wall race speeds.

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She’s still wing-heavy to the right however, so we still have an adjustment to make there. I jot some more notes in Turbulence Shorthand, then head back for the airport. The wind is brisk on the surface now, and the tower gives me my choice of runways.

Being a professional Test Pilot, I choose the more difficult of the two. Ercoupes are excellent crosswind planes, and now that my rigging is improved I’m eager to put it to the test. I do a descending arc over the city and line up to Runway 20. The wind is coming from my left. Like a weather vane, Tess cocks sideways into the wind. I descend toward the runway flying sideways. This is how it’s done in an Ercoupe. I’ll touch down at a crazy angle and the forward motion of the plane, combined with her trailing link landing gear, will neatly pirouette her around as I hit the pavement.

I’m coming down at my approach speed of 80 miles per hour, faster than most general aviation airplanes land. I make tiny power adjustments with the throttle to keep my descent speed at 500 foot per minute. As I close in on the runway I pull back on the yoke to “flare,” a nose-up maneuver that bleeds off the excess speed right before touch down and sets the plane up at the proper angle to touch down on her main landing gear first, with the nose wheel touching down second.

It won’t move. The yoke is stuck fast.

I pull with all my strength, but I might as well be one of the unworthy strongmen trying to free Excalibur from the stone. Before I can say, “Oh shit!” I slam into the ground. A spray of fuel bursts from the nose tank. The gear compresses, and like a spring, catapults me back into the air again.

With still no way to move my elevator and get my nose up, I fall flat a second time.

I’m fifty percent terrified, fifty percent humiliated, and 100% mystified.

After the plane finally bounces to a stop, the yoke moves freely back and forth again, smooth as silk. I taxi back to the maintenance shop, and on wobbly legs, dismount and walk in. “How’d it go?” the boys asked.

“The elevator froze on landing,” I replied. Immediate frowns. Then a bustle of activity. Tess is quickly pulled into the hangar. Off comes her tail cone. Out comes the seat to access the control cranks. Flashlights are fetched, mirrors on long poles are brought out to check far corners. I describe what happened and they all congratulate me on my fine flying skill.

It all happened so fast I can’t be sure I did anything to be congratulated about.

At the end of 45 minutes there are several theories, but no smoking gun. Some tweaks are made. Some parts lubricated. And then its time for another test flight.

But this one is different. This time I know something is wrong and I’m going up to try to reproduce it. A whole different type of courage is required to climb into a plane that you know is not quite working right, than it takes to climb into a mystery plane.

Teenage testosterone-fueled dreams aside, I don’t have the Right Stuff to be a test pilot. At least not every day.

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.

 

Weather worries

I still don’t have an airplane. I’m frustrated, yes, but not worried. I’m confident my maintenance team will have me in the air in time for the first flight of the race season.

So it’s the weather that I’m worrying about.

Here’s why: Our first trip this season will take us out over the eastern plains of New Mexico, cut across the top of Texas, bisect Oklahoma, lob off the top of Arkansas, plow through the middle of Tennessee, and land us in western South Carolina. Then we’ll race through Georgia to central Florida. Homebound we’ll go up the gulf coast into Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and then angle home across the Lone Star State. All told, a nearly 3,000-mile, two-week journey that ropes in the first three races of the season.

By the time we get home from the first trip of the season, we’ll already be due for our first oil change.

It all looks simple enough on the big wall planning chart in our flight lounge. No tricky terrain. Easy-to-avoid military air space. Plenty of fueling options.

But the weather… Now that’s a different story. Weather is ever dynamic, ever changing. Especially over so long a course. I’m yet to see a day see a day when there wasn’t trouble somewhere along our planned route.

Of course, we’ll take it in baby steps. Carefully looking down-range a day at a time, with one eye on the next day. I have no real concerns. I know we’ll make it. I also accept the fact that there’s no way we’ll make it as planned. Although we’ve carefully marked out our fuel stops, planned where we think we’ll spend each night, and inquired about hangar space en route, I know the plan will fall apart in the teeth of the weather gods. We’ll have to deviate from our course. We may chase weather; it may chase us. We may have to set down and wait it out.

We might even get trapped somewhere.

Of course, that’s half the fun of flying by light airplane.

But still… I’m worrying about the weather…

 

Guilty Pleasures

I’ve now been six weeks without an airplane. Things are progressing… slowly. As Rio says, at least the left wing is back on the plane. But there’s a big hole in the other wing, where the right main fuel tank should be.

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And that’s the big hang-up right now. The corroding tank, the ultimate smoking gun in our breakdown last year that might have cost us a First Place finish as season champs in the Sport Air Racing League (although our victory was anything but assured), had to be removed and sent halfway across the country to be rebuilt. At the rebuild place all the gazillion rivets that hold the clamshell tank together are drilled out so the tank can be disassembled. It will then be stripped down to bare metal, then reassembled, resealed, and re-riveted.

This, apparently, is much cheaper than buying a new one. Or so they tell me. I haven’t actually seen the final bill yet.

Or the rebuilt tank, for that matter.

Once the tank finds its way home, it will be shiny bare metal inside and out, so off to the paint shop it must go for exterior painting. I suspect that’s why the rest of the work is going at a snail’s pace. My maintenance team knows the job can’t be finished until the tank shows up anyway…

They did get the new ADS-B transponder installed. This is a next-generation air traffic control device that will let controllers keep track of airplanes using GPS rather than radar. If you want to fly in controlled airspace after January 1, 2020, you have to have one. Never mind that it might cost you a considerable percentage of the value of your plane!

I chose the Garmin version of the ADS-B for no particular reason other than we have a Garmin com radio and we use a dash-mounted Garmin GPS and the Garmin Pilot app for nav. It made sense to me to keep everything the same brand for maximum compatibility. Speaking of our dash-top Garmin, I had my mechanic run a hard-wired plug through the dash to power it so I could reduce the wires that run helter skelter throughout the plane in flight. Previously, it plugged into the “cigarette lighter” on the bottom of the dashboard and we had to snake the cord around the copilot yoke and the throttle quad to power it.

I was quite pleased with the solution until the next week. That’s when, reading the user’s manual for our new transponder online, I discovered that it has a built-in GPS source that will output to my iPad. I won’t need the dash-mounted unit anymore.

The one I just paid to have a cable installed for.

D’oh!     (Homer Simpson head-slap)

The boys have the sticking trim cable system replaced, but all the glass remains out of the plane, as well as much of the interior. They haven’t started on the doors, nor the “rigging” problems that have the controls cock-eyed in level flight. In the email wrap for the week the chief mechanic admitted, “We didn’t get as much done as we had hoped.”

(((Sigh)))

So airplane-less for some time, and clearly airplane-less for some time to come, how am I getting my aviation fix? Well, I’m doing some hangar flying. Or our version of it, anyway. Hangar flying is when a bunch of pilots sit around the hangar on bad weather days, or bad maintenance days, and talk about flying. But it makes no sense for me to go to our actual hangar. That would just be more depressing. It’s a 45-minute drive one-way, and we are the only airplane based at the airport.

So there would be no one to hang with in the hangar.

But we do have our flight lounge at home, with our wall-filling flight planning chart on it, so I’ve spent a lot of time in there, brainstorming routes to the twenty SARL races this season. The room has a happy aviation vibe to it, with it’s flying art, accessories, airplane models, and collection of aviation books. That helps, but it’s not enough. So I actually turned to (((shudder)))) TV.

Yes, I confess, Rio and I have been getting our aviation fix by watching the “reality” TV show Ice Pilots, NWT.

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It’s the tale of Buffalo Airways, a family-owned company largely flying freight and charters in Canada’s cold-cold-cold North West Territories using a fleet of classic “piston pounder” airplanes of the past: DC3s, DC4s, and C46s.

Being reality TV, it has big, big personalities and petty little plots, but the planes rock, the photography is breathtaking, and the cast of characters is lovable—especially the boss’s son Mikey, who serves as the company’s general manager—and they all grow on you. The series ran a full six seasons on the History Chanel. We’re halfway through season two.

What happens if we finish Ice Pilots before our own piston pounder is back in the air?

I guess we’ll have to resort to watching Airplane Repo.