Weighty options

I let go of the yoke. One heart beat… Two heart beats…

The horizon rises in the windshield. Slowly at first, then faster. Up. Up. Up. Faster and faster still. The whisper of the wind turns into a roar. Then a howl. Twin tails rising high into the air, Tess nose-dives toward the earth like a Stuka dive bomber.


The wind resistance tugs at the prop, red-lining the tachometer.  The vertical speed indictor shows 800 feet per minute down… 900 feet per minute… 1,000 feet… 1,200… The airspeed indictor snaps to the yellow line. I lose my nerve. My hand back on the yoke, I pull back. Gently. Firmly. The horizon, now above my head, slowly slides across the roof of the canopy, down the windshield, below the nose. We are straight and level again.

I turn to Lisa, who’s sitting calmly in the right seat, pencil poised over her knee board. “Well,” I say, “that wasn’t encouraging.” Clearly the new trim is not working right.

So much for a trouble-free return to service.

We return to the field, land, and my mechanics make an adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.


We return to the field a second time, land, and my mechanics make another adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.


On the third try, we’ve run out of trim. It’s deployed 45 degrees into the slipstream, and still the elevator can’t hold the plane in level hands-off flight. Something is seriously amiss. Tessie has become mysteriously nose-heavy. Like our engine mystery of two summers ago, there’s no satisfactory and satisfying answer as to why this is so. But cause aside, we need a solution. And one solution to a nose-heavy airplane is to simply add some weight to the other end. And as the tail is much farther behind the center of gravity—that magic balancing point an aircraft in flight rests on and rotates around—than the nose is forward of the center of gravity, a little weight should go a long way.

Or so we thought.

Funny how many of the things we think  should work simply don’t with this stubborn little airplane.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the testing plan. Or with the details of the flights, one after another, after another, after another, after another. For most of a day. But we started by securing one-pound bags of “Sea Pearls” in Tessie’s tail. The bags are designed for scuba diver belts. They are small, flat, full of tiny lead shot, and surprisingly heavy for their size.


Based on the weight and balance sheets, it shouldn’t have taken too many bags to get Tessie to fly right. The weights were placed 180 inches behind Tess’s center of gravity. One hundred and eighty inches is a loooooong lever with which to raise the nose. Or so we all thought.

But it was not the case. Seventy-five dollars’ worth of Sea Pearls later, I still had a plane the Luftwaffe would have been proud to deploy. With the maximum amount of added weight that my maintenance team felt was safe, we still couldn’t fly level. Oh, sure. It was better. The dives were slower. Less aggressive with each bag of Sea Pearls. But anything like level flight with neutral trim eluded us.

It was time for Plan B. Which was four washers installed along the bolts that secure Tess’s tail to her fuselage. Yep. We shimmed her tail. Then I went up to test fly.

No more Stuka.

But were the weights still needed? There was only one way to find out. Take some out, test fly, and see how many, if any, were needed with the shimming of the tail feathers. Again, I won’t bore you with the details of the flights. One after another, after another, after…

But in end, there were no Sea Pearls in Tessie’s tail and she flew true.

In fact, she’s never flown better.

Now, if we can just figure out why her brand-new attitude indictor is spinning like a top, and why her compass points the wrong way…


Not quite ready for prime time

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

Oil pressure good. Engine cylinder and exhaust temps coming up, but in range.

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour…

We’re at the top of the green arc. Tessie should be able to fly.

60 miles per hour…

65 miles per hour…

The control tower zips past on my left as we barrel down the runway.

70 miles per hour…

75 miles per hour…

We’re still glued to the runway, speeding down the blacktop like a dragster without the slightest hint that the plane is ever going to fly. Ahead, the band of lights marking the end of the runway is fast approaching.

I smile ear-to-ear.

Yes! This is the way it should be! Properly rigged, with the main landing gear appropriately sprightly, holding the twin tails the designated height off the tarmac, the ‘Coupe’s wing has zero angle of attack on the ground. In other words, if you want the plane to fly, you need to pull the nose up.

Of course, I don’t want to fly. Not yet anyway. Flying will come later. After all, Tessie’s wings haven’t seen the light of day in many months, and I’ve learned from experience that rather than assume that everything will be all right when a shop declares that an airplane is fixed and ready to go, you should assume that nothingwill be right following maintenance.


And these last few months of maintenance were like no other maintenance Tess has ever seen.

Parts of her that haven’t been seen by human eyes since she was built in 1947 were exposed to the light of day again as the very skin and bones of her nose were removed and replaced, her engine sitting for months on a pair of sawhorses. Her engine, naturally, is back on, sitting in a new engine mount. But every hose, cable, and wire was disconnected and then re-connected—and that means there’s no end of potential trouble.

So this time I decided to take a stepwise approach to returning to the air. First, I taxied lazily around the ramp, spinning slow motion doughnuts at low RPM, assuring myself that the complex control interlinkages were functioning. Going straight forward the ailerons were flat and the control yokes straight and true to the beckoning horizon. In a turn, one alerion flipped skyward and the other pointed to the earth, as the yin-yang of aerodynamics commands. Looking back over my shoulder I could watch the twin rudders flip left then right as I danced across the tarmac.

Naturally, given my hard-earned distrust of this particular aircraft engine, I kept one eye on the oil pressure gauge the whole time, but all was well.

Next, I asked the tower for a high-speed taxi test: Basically, to run down their runway as fast as possible without lifting off. This puts more air over the control surfaces, lets the engine run at higher power, and hopefully—while you’re still safely on the ground—shakes loose anything that might fall off. It’s as close to a test flight as you can come without actually flying. Which I didn’t want to do. Yet.

Which is a good thing, because, right now, I’m running out of runway.

I slide the crystal art deco throttle handle back, down to the base of the throttle quad, tap the brakes, and exit the runway.

My high-speed taxi test is complete. Next will come the flying.

But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.


Plane Parenting

Rio just had his wisdom teeth out. All four of them. At once. That should have been a blessing, but due to a snafu with the surgeon’s prescriptions, the pharmacy, and our distance from civilization, he was without any sort of pain meds for about two hours after the general anesthesia wore off.

I’ll spare you my distress over his distress. Parenting: It’s not for wimps.

On the same day, I got an email from my mechanic about my sick airplane. Tess was supposed to be ready for test flight in a few days, but the team has been having a hard time getting the cowl and nose bowl to fit properly after the engine was installed in its brand-new engine bracket and mounts. Well, one thing led to another and it turns out that the engine is out of alignment with the fuselage, and spacers need to be ordered to get it to point forward, not downward.

I’ll spare you my distress over this stress. Airplane ownership: It’s not for wimps.

This morning, it occurred to me that owning an airplane is, in fact, much like being a parent. Or that being a parent is, in fact, much like owning an airplane. I suppose it depends on which came first in your life. Here are just a few examples, feel free to chime in with more via comments:

Airplanes & Kids:  No matter how old they are, you worry about them. (All. The. Time.) The only difference is that you tend to worry a little less about your children as they age, and a little more about your airplane as it ages!

Kids & Airplanes:Keep your mind alive. They force you to never stop learning. Kids ask questions that challenge your knowledge, while airplanes never stop teaching you about themselves.

Airplanes & Kids:Get sick or break bones at the worst possible time. Always the worst possible time. And visits to the doctor are expensive; and that’s true even for routine checkups. The only difference is that the airplane doctor costs more than the kid’s doctor!

Kids & Airplanes:Take you to places you never imagined existed. Literally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Airplanes & Kids: Eat more than you could possibly have imagined before you had them.

Kids & Airplanes: Amaze and delight you when you least expect it.

Airplanes & Kids: Demand time, attention, money, and love.

Kids & Airplanes:Love you back, unconditionally. No matter what your faults as a human and a pilot are.

Airplanes & Kids:No matter how rich you are, you really can’t afford them.

Kids & Airplanes:Even though you can’t afford either, you really should have at least one of each.

Being a parent of a child—or an airplane—is rewarding, expensive, amazing, and stressful. And I wouldn’t trade either experience for the world.