“Gentlemen, start your engines,” is not a command I’ll get to hear this year. The race season, for me, has ended before the first swing of the propeller. I love the sport and I was rarin’ to go, my bags were half packed for the first race. It’s even a short season, but as it turns out, well, damn it, my checkbook is even shorter.
Two seasons of racing with family in tow, neglect of work in lieu of racing, a downturn in opportunity, and a long string of expensive “mechanicals” on Race 53 have tapped me out. I’m drowning in red ink.
I did my best to ignore reality, of course, but in the end, there was no escaping it. First, I toyed with cutting out just the more distant races. Then going to just the closest ones. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that even that was out of reach.
I even considered running just one race, I probably could have afforded that, but I realized that for me, one race would be harder than none. Harder on my soul, that is. This racing, you see, is like a drug. You can never get enough. At least I can’t. One taste would just fuel the thirst for another, and another, and another.
And like any addict I’d no doubt take stupid measures to get my next “fix.”
So I packed it in. Called it off. Took my hat back out of the ring. Scratched the races I’d signed up for. I deleted the flight plans and erased the checkered race flags from the big wall chart in our flight lounge.
I’ll keep my League membership. Keep the big black and white “53” gumball on the wings and fuselage. But, for this season at least—and probably more—I’ll have to be content to be an armchair racer, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the times to be posted to see where my friends and rivals are placing, imaging where I’d be in the lineup. Seeing their championship points build on the leaderboard while hoping to catch glimpses of their trophies on Facebook.
Or maybe I won’t even have the strength for that. It might be too much like smelling the distant cookout when you are starving in the woods.
Do I have regrets? Sure. Plenty. I’m bummed we won’t be able to see how much better (if at all) the 0-200 Stroker delivers compared to Race 53’s old engine. Plus the Fac6 Category is really heating up. There’s some serious competition now at the bottom of the pack. Damn. That would have been fun.
This year, too, SARL has introduced a handicapped element to some races, leveling the playing field between production planes. Handicapping erases the element of the airplane itself. That leaves pilot skill as the only factor when it comes to winning or losing a race. In theory, in a handicapped race, Tessie could trump Mike Patey’s 400+ mile per hour turbine terror Turbulence.
Wouldn’t that be something to see?
Oh. Wait. So far, this handicapping thing is just for the production crowd and Turbulence runs in the Experimental Category. Still, it would have been interesting to see if me, or my friendly nemesis from last year, Charles Cluck of Race 35, is the “better” pilot. My mother and my wife are convinced I am, but that’s just family loyalty. That guy is a hell of a pilot. The Brits learned the hard way not to mess with men who wear kilts.
Still, I would have relished the challenge.
But I realized that if I tried to race there’d be no flying money for anything else. I’d fly ten trips in the year, most on credit, and Tess would end up being relegated to the lowly status of Hanger Queen the rest of the year. Better, I decided, to settle on racing a cloud every weekend than run a few sparse races and twiddle my thumbs most weekends.
So there won’t be a continuation of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series form GA News here at Plane Tales like I hoped, but I’m sure I can think of something to talk about.
And at least, while the ravens of racing are crying “nevermore” for me on the circuit, my blue and white bird will still continue to race around the skies.
If you’ve ever been out to a small airport, you might have noticed that there are always a lot of pilots hanging around talking to each other about flying, and you might wonder why they aren’t just out flying instead.
It’s probably because their planes are in the shop, where it seems ours spends half her time recently.
To recap: In July of last year we put in a new engine. Well, three new engines. That took until late November to straighten out.
Then we spent all of December pitching, un-pitching, and re-pitching the prop so it would work with Engine III.
January Tess developed oil incontinence; and in February the header tank sprung a leak. Into the cockpit.
March it was throttle issues. Now in April, one month before our annual (Again? Seriously?) this happened:
Yeah, the exhaust pipe isn’t supposed to move like that. Actually, it’s really not supposed to move at all. In this case our muffler has come loose, and as it flaps around, it’s torn the carb heat connections loose, too. What does all that mean?
It means at least a theoretical risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for anyone in the plane when the engine is running, and a more than theoretical risk that the carb heat system will fail when it’s needed most. And those two things together add up to mandatory maintenance.
And as I could see that the cowl would have to come off to work on this newest problem, it made more sense to me to move the dreaded annual up a few weeks than to pay for two rounds of maintenance within a month’s time.
So off to the shop I must go, and then, because I won’t be flying for a while, I guess I’ll just hang out and talk with the other pilots.
Yay! The plane is done. The day is beautiful, and this afternoon Rio and I launch on a four-day adventure. We’re flying the Route 66 Air Tour, joining a fleet of 20-30 airplanes following the historic “mother road” across New Mexico and into Arizona. We’ve just been through a major maintenance event, but I’m confident the one-hour solo flight home will serve as an adequate test flight to ensure that all is in order.
Debs, Grandma Jean, and Rio are at home assembling chicken salad sandwiches for a pre-Tour party at our airport (more about that next week) so Lisa is driving me the hour and a quarter over to Santa Fe to pick up the plane. It’s my second trip over in as many days. She’ll drop me off and head to SXU by car, where we’ll rendezvous in the late morning. My job is to prepare Tess for her adventure and to get the giant silver quasi-antique 40-cup coffee pot brewing. Once Lisa shows up, and I’ll easily beat her to Santa Rosa, we are to lay out the cookies that the city council authorized the airport manager to buy onto trays in an attractive and creative manner.
After the required small talk with my mechanics, the giant hangar doors rumble open and my chief mechanic uses his fancy-pants multi-adjustable tow bar to grab Tess’s nose gear and pull her out into the sun. It’s a perfect flying morning. Not a breath of wind. I do a quick walk around, and assured that all is as it should be, I mount the wing, step down into the cockpit and settle in for the flight.
My only real worry is the flow of fuel between Tessie’s three tanks. I plan to watch the fuel gauge on the new header tank like a hawk to ensure its being kept full by the engine-driven fuel pump as designed, and that the excess fuel is properly overflowing and draining back into the conjoined wing tanks; an invisible process that can only be monitored by proxy, using the compass-style float gauge on the floor of the plane.
If all goes well, I’ll be back to my homebase in a little over an hour. If all goes poorly I’ve got plenty of time, and fuel, to get back to Santa Fe.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I set a pen and a piece of paper on the seat next to me to copy down my taxi clearance, then plug in my headset. As it’s been a few weeks since I last flew Tess, I pull the engine start checklist from the right-hand side pocket and follow it.
Parking brake engaged. Check.
Fuel cutoff open. Check.
Master switch on. Check.
Beacon on. Check.
Crack the throttle a quarter inch. Check.
Push the mixture control full forward. Check.
Ensure the carb heat knob is full forward. Check.
Turn the ignition switch to both. Check.
Clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor. Check.
Give her two shots of prime. Check!
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. At once the new-old tachometer goes crazy, the needle jumping up and down like a seismograph station when the big one hits the San Andres.
Well, that’s not right. I fiddle with the throttle, advancing it, and retarding it to no avail.
I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal “bat switches” (so called because they look like miniature baseball bats) that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Each has a satisfactory solid movement as it’s flipped downwards to its off position. Radio: Thunk. 12-volt power: Thunk. Navigation lights: Thunk… I unlatch my seatbelt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke. Then show them the quick loop of video I shot on my iPhone of the new-old tach.
“It worked fine when we tested it,” they say.
The new-old tach is the one that was originally in the plane, but was removed when we (foolishly) purchased a modern digital engine monitor, which has been nothing but a pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned. I decided to get it to help us better protect our expensive new engine, but it added to the delays that cost us the last race season, plus I find it hard to read in flight, I miss all of my simple old gauges that told me in a half-glance the status of my engine, but most of all I miss the tach.
The engine monitor has a tach, but it’s small and hyper sensitive. It jumps around a lot even when the throttle is rock solid, and I’ve found it impossible to use to get the right power settings for landing. I tried for some time, and finally decided to just re-install the analog tach to make landing operations safer and easier.
But now, in its maiden re-installation, it has gone crazy. Tony, the number two mechanic, heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “It’s a pretty simple system. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane, pulling the canopy halves partway up to protect myself from the prop blast, then double check that the parking brake is engaged. Fuel cutoff open… master switch on… beacon on… crack the throttle a quarter inch… push the mixture control full forward… ensure the carb heat knob is full forward… turn the ignition switch to both… clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor… give her half-shot of prime for a warm engine…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button. The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion.
The tach behaves itself. Oh well, what’s one little glitch? After all, they had to pretty much disconnect everything in the plane to get the old tank out and the new one in. I give Tony a “thumbs up” and he heads back into the hangar.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I put on my headset and dial up the Santa Fe ATIS, which stands for Automated Terminal Information Service, a pre-recorded audio loop that gives pilots basic information on airport operations: The wind conditions, the active runway, and more.
I’m greeted with complete silence.
Well, not complete silence, with the engine running there’s always a dull roar in the cockpit, even with the best of headsets. But I’m not receiving any radio signals. I double check. Yeah, I’ve entered the frequency right. I poke at the intercom buttons. I fuss with the volume button on my headset. I pull out the head set plugs, and push them in again.
Well, crud. I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal bat switches that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Radio, 12 volt, Navigation lights, Thunk… thunk… thunk… I unlatch my seat belt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. Again. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke.
It’s not quite so funny this time.
Once again Tony heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Another short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “I think the plug was loose. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane. No need to start the plane to test this problem. I flip the master switch on, then the radio control switch. I hold the headset up to one ear and hear, “Santa Fe information Papa, time sixteen forty five Zulu…”
I nod to Tony and give him a thumbs up again.
“Now don’t be coming back here again,” Tony teases me.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight.
Parking brake engaged, fuel cutoff open, turn the master switch, flip on the beacon, crack the throttle a quarter inch, push the mixture control full forward, ensure the carb heat knob is full forward, turn the ignition switch to both, clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor, give her a half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Time to get this party started!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi, then I engage my Cloudahoy App to record the flight and start to taxi. I notice the GPS link in the App hasn’t turned green yet. I also notice that on my Garmin Pilot Navigation system I’m not moving. I slow down and look at my transponder.
It says “MSG.”
That can’t be good. I call ground control and ask for permission to return to the ramp.
I pull back up in front of my mechanic’s hangar and I shut the engine down. I close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the bat switches. Thunk… thunk… thunk… Unlatch seat belt, slide shoulder out and unbutton canopy. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in.
“Seriously?” they ask me.
I text Lisa: Third time, assuredly, will be the charm. Keep driving.
This one is more complicated. The coaxial cable has pulled out of its plug. My guys don’t have the magic tool needed to fix it. I text home to tell Rio to search the flight lounge cabinets for our old dash-top GPS unit. I’m not going to let a little thing like no navigation system spoil our adventure. In the meantime, my guys call the avionics shop on the other side of the field, who agree to send someone right over.
I pass the time in my mechanic’s office, in out of the cold late morning air, surfing eBay on my iPad. After what seems like forever, once again, Tess is pronounced ready for flight.
Parking brake, fuel cutoff, master, beacon, throttle, mixture, carb heat, ignition, fuel warning, give her half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Third time is the charm!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi. Everything is working fine. The new-old tach is behaving, I can hear and talk on the radio, and my nav system is alive. I taxi back toward the runway again, scanning the instrument panel for anything out of the ordinary.
Everything looks good. I do my run up and tell the tower I’m ready to rock and roll. They advise me a larger plane is on long final, but the tower controller clears me for takeoff, adding, “Do not hesitate, early turnout approved.” Hell yeah, I’ve just been given permission to have some fun.
I throttle up to full power as I turn onto the runway, foot never touching the brake. Tess surges forward, she has fuel to get home and nothing else onboard. As she leaps into the air I bank left, and barely higher than the tower, fly up over the south ramp, studying the planes parked in neat rows.
It’s good to be back in the air, even if it’s a few hours later than I expected. It’s surprisingly calm air, the engine sounds strong and smooth, and all the repairs seem to be holding. I reach up to the engine monitor and scroll to the secondary screen. Amps and volts good. I scroll to the fuel computer. It shows me that I have fuel enough to reach Hawaii.
That seems improbable.
I check the fuel flow. The gauge is reporting one gallon per hour, not our usual five and a half. I know this is wrong. But what could be causing it? I lift one earphone clear of my head. A blast of sound assaults me. Nothing wrong with the engine. If I were venting fuel above the sensor, the engine would be starved. I look at the fuel gauge on the floor. It’s steady. The float gauge in the new header tank is riding high. Like most of the rest of the repairs today, it must be a wire not hooked up right.
Do I go on or go back? A deep sigh. I’m only ten miles out; I’m going to have to take the plane back to the mechanics at some point anyway. It might as well be now. I bank into a right-hand 180 and dial my radio back to the Santa Fe tower to tell them I’m coming back.
I land, taxi back to my mechanics and park right in front of their hangar doors. Engine shut down. Fuel valve. Bat switches. Seat belt. Shoulder belt. Canopy. Up and out.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in. They guys aren’t happy to see me.
“Each time you come back it takes longer to fix,” sighs Tony. I tell him the problem and he gathers his tools and his flashlight.
I text Lisa: Wouldn’t you know it? More trouble. Keep driving.
Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.
Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.
This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.
I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.
But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.
I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.
I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.
The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.
I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?
I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.
I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.
At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.
It was still windy.
I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.
I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.
Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.
Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.
It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.
When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.
Damn. What’s this going to cost me?
Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?
Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?
Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.
We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.
Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.
I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.
He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.
One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.
Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.
Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.
When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.
As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.
Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.
Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.
When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.
Remember last week when I told you that, as always with airplanes, there was a problem? Well, at risk of turning Plane Tales into the aviation version of Bob Vila’s This Old House TV series, today I have yet another Plane Problem tale.
It all started when we bought the airplane. No really, today’s feature attraction is one I’ve known about, and have been putting off, since 2013.
But before we can dig into the latest money-eater, for background you need to know that Tessie has three fuel tanks. There’s one in each wing, which is where airplane gas tanks are normally found. Somewhat uniquely, Tess’s are interconnected with no fuel selector, making the pair act like one large gas tank. Even more uniquely, there’s a fuselage tank in the nose of the plane between the engine and the instrument panel. This makes some people nervous, with all that gas in their laps, but in truth, all airplanes are just flying gasoline bombs anyway, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I regard my fuselage tank as a great safety feature due to the way the entire fuel system is designed.
Here’s the deal: An engine-driven fuel pump draws gas up from the conjoined wing tanks and into the nose tank, which I generally call a “header” tank. Gas is then gravity-fed down to the carburetor. The fuel pump draws more gas than the engine uses, and the header tank has an overflow tube that leads back down to the wing tanks again.
Think of it like one of those chocolate fountains you see at weddings.
What makes this arrangement safe, or safer than virtually any other low wing airplane, is the fact that the engine doesn’t need the fuel pump to run. If the fuel pump conks out, the header tank can keep the engine running for an hour. In other low wing planes, if the fuel pump kicks the bucket, the engine shuts down (which is why many planes have backup fuel pumps, but I’m a great believer in catastrophic chains of failure).
So speaking of gas, pretty much since day one—or maybe it was day two—there’s been a slight odor of gas in Tess’s cockpit. My mechanics checked all the usual suspects, looking at the priming system, checking the fuel cutoffs, and making sure all the various connectors were well connected.
All was well.
Looking closer, in every nook and cranny, they finally discovered the cause: An itsy bitsy fuel seep. The header tank was oozing fuel. As pulling out the header tank pretty much entails gutting the interior of the airplane to remove it (or so we all thought at the time), which would take a ton of time, and therefore cost me a ton of money, my mechanics had little trouble convincing me to put this off. Sure, when you first opened the canopy when the plane had been sitting for a while, there’d be a whiff of fuel, but it quickly dissipated and wasn’t an issue.
Once we got Tess back from her months-looooong engine misadventures, I noticed that the fuel smell was worse. Much worse. When opening the canopy, a nauseating wave of fuel fumes poured forth. On our return flight from Texas on our engine break-in flight, I got a pounding headache from the fumes. When I took her in for her new engine’s first oil change, at ten flight hours, I insisted that my mechanics investigate.
Nothing new was amiss.
Meanwhile, the smell was now so strong I wondered if gas were dripping out and soaking into the carpet. My guys suggested I cover the floor with white paper between flights to see if the paper was stained when I came back.
Still, I knew the fumes had to be coming from that damn tank, somehow. And that, all evidence to the contrary, things were getting worse. I also kicked myself for not insisting that the tank be pulled and rebuilt during the long downtime of the engine rebuild. I vowed to get it taken care of once and for all at our next annual, which due to all the work that’s been done, has now been reset to the month of May.
That was at the end of November. Just the other day I was back again at my maintenance base in Santa Fe for the second oil change on the new engine. That’s when one of my guys said, “Come over here, I want you to see something.”
It’s never a good thing when an airplane mechanic wants you to see something.
Like a condemned man being led to gallows, I followed him around Tess’s nose to the pilot side. The mechanic pulled out a black flashlight and played a bright beam on the firewall. A long blue stain wandered down the slick metal.
Blue… Blue is the color of the only remaining aviation fuel in the U.S., called 100 low lead, or sometimes 100LL. Why is it blue, other than the fact that its cost per gallon gives pilots the Blues? Well, back in the day when aviation was healthier, there were many kinds of airplane gas. There was 80 octane, the 100 octane, and even a 130 octane. Various engines ran better on one or the other, and with that many gasolines available, there was always the risk that some fool line boy would put the wrong juice in your tanks with possibly tragic results. Thus, each kind of gas had its own color so you could tell if you had the right or wrong go-juice in your bird’s tanks. Eighty was red, 130 was green, and the 100 was blue.
The blue stain was telling us that the seep was no longer a seep. It was a… Well, I don’t know what to call something that’s more than a seep but less than a trickle. But it wasn’t a good sign.
Next the mechanic crawled under the dash to look at the bottom of the header tank from inside. This isn’t an easy thing to do in an Ercoupe. He lay on his back on the seat, head under the dash, legs and feet dangling out the window.
“Can some one get me my phone?” his disembodied voice floated out of the cockpit.
Odd time to choose to make a phone call, I thought, but I fetched his phone from his workbench.
It turns out he wanted to take a photo. Massive stretches of blue were staining the underside of the tank. OK, well, massive is an exaggeration. There were two or three stains the size of postage stamps. But they weren’t there a month ago.
But that wasn’t half of it. Not by far.
Along the base of the tank, where it rests on a bracket on the inside of the firewall, was liquid gasoline. I guess my seep just became a spring. In just a hair over a month. The tank job couldn’t be put off any longer.
I asked my senior mechanic if the outfit that rebuilt our wing tank this spring also rebuilt header tanks. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but given how hard it’s going to be to get to, maybe you should consider a new one.” Then he asked if I happened to know if Univair sold new ones.
Univair, a company in Colorado, should really be called Uni-savior. They hold the Type Certificate for the Ercoupe, and although they’ve never made a single airplane, they continue to make almost every part and piece of the planes. This is why Ercoupe owners, unlike owners of other classic planes of yesteryear, don’t need to own three planes to keep one flying: Virtually every replacement part we could need can be on a UPS truck within 24 hours.
Because while Univair can make anything you need, not everything you need is always in stock. Still, better to wait six weeks than spend a lifetime searching airplane junkyards.
Standing in my mechanic’s hanger next to Tess I could almost hear the gas dripping onto the floor. Which it wasn’t. Other than in my writer’s imagination. I pulled out my phone and checked Univair’s website. There it was, the header tank, all $2,180.87 of it. Seriously? Eighty-seven cents? Why not just round it up to twenty-two hundred bucks?
I ordered it.
Then I flew my leaky plane south to the prop shop, wondering if I’d ever get away from fixing this plane and back to just, you know, flying it. So… did I choose 47 or 48 at the prop shop? It turns out it can be pitched to 47.5. Who knew?
With that problem solved, I set about working my contacts for advice on how to pull the header tank out of the plane without completely disemboweling the cockpit, as it turns out that neither of my mechanics had ever done it. Luckily, for Tess’s version of her breed, it’s not too bad a procedure after all. The yokes come out. Various cables get disconnected, then the tank is disconnected and pretty much drops straight onto the floor, where it can be pulled out of the plane. At first glance my guys thought that the entire instrument panel and all its toys would need to be removed, but that’s not necessary. So that’s good.
Well, other than the timing, of course.
Over dinner and lots of wine at the end of the very long day, I was filling the family in on the latest debacle. When I finished, I wrapped up with a hopeful thought from one of my mechanics: At this point we’ve replaced or refurbished virtually every system on the airplane. It’s more of a 2018 Ercoupe than a 1947 Ercoupe. With a strong new power plant on the front and all major systems in ship-shape order, there would be nothing but routine maintenance to worry about going forward.
My mother wasn’t buying that. Not for a second. “I’m sure something else will break down next,” she snorted.
Maybe so. But I hope not. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be a long time before the next episode of This Old Airplane airs on the Plane Tales Network.
It was the best Ercoupe takeoff since the JATO tests of 1941. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences strapped rocket pods under the wings of an Ercoupe and lit the fuses in a series of successful tests that led to the military use of rockets to help heavy planes get off of short runways—and to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But there were no rocket pods on Tessie’s sturdy metal wings, and we were rising off the ground at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Granted, in other airplanes that’s nothing to write home about. But in my beloved, but heavy and underpowered ‘Coupe, the only time I’d seen a number like that was when a thunderstorm tried to suck me up into its jaws when I foolishly tried to slip under it.
So I was ecstatic about the climb rate. The new stroker engine was really showing its stuff, lifting Tess off the runway like never before.
But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem was my propeller. Oh gosh, where to start… Where to start? OK, the angle at which a propeller cuts the air is called its “pitch.” A flatter pitch bites the air in a way that creates better climb, but at the cost of speed. A steeper pitch gives more speed, but less lifting ability. Pitch also has a complicated ménage à trois relationship with torque and rpm that I don’t even pretend to understand, but the upshot of all of this was that while we had JATO-like takeoffs, we were hitting our engine’s redline at about half power. My mechanic advised me that I needed to re-pitch the prop.
What’s involved in that?
Well, fancy airplanes have variable pitch props that let the pilot change the pitch of the propellers in flight using a lever in the cockpit so that they can have both strong climb on takeoff and fast cruise in flight. Less fancy modern planes have what are called ground-adjustable propellers. The pitch can be easily and quickly changed on the ground to best fit the mission at hand.
But I have neither.
I have a metal prop whose pitch can only be changed by having an expert literally bend the metal blades to change the angle, thus “re-pitching” it. Luckily for me there’s just such an expert an hour and a half’s flight away and there’s no limit on how many times my particular model of prop can be re-pitched, other than the limits imposed by my bank account balance. Unluckily for me, this is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. Adding to the complexity of the situation, propeller performance is affected by weight, temperature, altitude, the whims of the Gods of Aviation, and who knows what else.
Of course, in my innocence at the beginning of this particular Plane Tale, I knew none of this. I trustingly flew to the prop shop and talked to the Master Metal Bender, giving him what data we had. Tessie’s prop was measured. She was wearing a 46-pitch prop. Yeah, the numbers meant nothing to me either, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that would be considered an “extreme” climb prop for an Ercoupe, which is what she needed at our altitude with a largely worn out engine. Given our data, the prop was re-pitched to 51, which is completely at the other end of the spectrum for ‘Coupes. I now had a fast cruise prop.
And boy, was Tess ever fast. Wearing her new pitch, she cut through the air a full 10 miles per hour faster than ever! It was amazing. Race trophies danced in my eyes.
But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem this time was the runway. Tessie didn’t want to leave it. We used up thousands of feet of concrete, and then she could barely lift into the air. I had cartoon visions of Tessie furiously flapping her metal wings to get airborne.
This just wouldn’t do.
So back to the prop shop I went. The Master Metal Bender took Tess’s propeller off again and re-re-pitched. Logically, it seemed we needed to be halfway between where we’d been and where we went (although these things aren’t necessarily linear). As half way would be 48.5, and things don’t work that way, I had to choose between 48 and 49. I went with 49, on the fast side of middle of the road. OK, forget what I said a few minutes ago. We really do have to all talk more about these pitch numbers to drive the story forward. Here’s your background…
Historically the Ercoupe wisdom was that:
48 was a climb prop.
50 was a normal prop, and…
52 was a cruise prop.
But ‘Coupes have gotten fat. New electronics and gadgets have made them heaver over the decades, and that affects prop performance. While there’s no official data, for modern weights, many Coupe folks now consider that:
46 is a climb prop.
48 is a normal, prop, and…
50 is a cruise prop.
Adding to the confusion is that no one seems to know what prop best suits the stroker in an Ercoupe. Given the fact that this whole prop thing is more of an art than a science in the first place, I’m sure you can see where this is going.
So how’d the re-re-pitch go? Rio said it best when he told his grandmother that it was, “Less miserable.”
The new pitch, as expected, reduced the speed and increased the climb. But it was a marginal change at best. So we have to re-re-re-pitch. What a bitch.
So picture me standing in the Aviation Maintenance Casino. I’m standing at the propeller roulette wheel, and there are only two numbers left to bet on: 47 and 48. I know 46 is too flat. I know that 49 and 51 are too steep, and that even though we skipped 50, the change between 49 and 51 wasn’t much. This suggests that going from 49 to 48 wouldn’t net much of a change either. Of course, by the same logic, a 47 shouldn’t be much different from a 46, which was where all of our troubles started in the first place.
The Croupier calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…”
Waves of heat pour out of the turbine’s giant twin exhaust pipes. The distinctive whine of the engine increases in pitch and the orange plane turns towards me, displaying her array of bright blue-white landing and anti collision lights.
The race is starting.
I didn’t make it off the ramp and back to race central in time. I tuck in next to the wing of a sad faded Comanche with flat tires to be sure I’m well clear of everyone’s props, and stand back to watch the show. One by one, the race fleet taxies by, a parade of power. The air quivers as spinning props shred it. It’s thrilling.
And thoroughly depressing.
The last race of the 2017 season is underway and, for the first time ever, I’m watching a Sport Air Racing League event from the sidelines. On the ground. Yeah, I’m still planeless. Well, not technically planeless. I still have a plane, it just doesn’t have an engine mounted on the front of it at the moment, so I drove to this event.
So why did I go to an air race if I can’t race? Well, it was the right thing to do. I’m still, believe it or not, the National Silver Champ for production airplanes despite missing a large chunk of the season. It would be bad form to not go and accept my trophy.
The last plane passes, the pilot waving to me. I give him a thumbs up, then walk slowly across the tarmac to watch the fleet take to the air. They skim down the runway at 30-second intervals, lift off, turn right, and climb toward the course. One racer activates his smoke system, dragging an ash grey contrail behind him as he arcs up into the sky. It’s beautiful. I feel a pang of jealousy. I nearly succeeded in getting a smoke system, but last-minute problems meant it would have taken up more than half the luggage compartment, rather than being installed under the floor like I envisioned, and I couldn’t bring myself to lose that much utility for the sake of fun. Every great once and a while, I’m practical.
The last plane away, silence descends on the airport. I make my way back to Taylor’s Ford Hangar, where the race HQ is set up, to await the fleet’s return. All morning long a beehive of activity, the hangar is now nearly empty. Lonely. It was a great morning catching up with friends, colleagues, and competitors—most of whom I’ve not seen in many months. And it was wonderful being around airplanes again all morning. Soaking in their vibes, their varied lines, their smells, their sounds. But standing on the ground watching the action take off without me was hard. And now, shrouded in silence, my mood darkens to match the overcast sky.
Deep in my chest a dull ache starts, then somewhere in the back of my mind a spark of anger, mixed with unchanneled resentment, flares. I’m happy, sad, angry and wistful all in the same breath.
Damn, I know what this is. I’ve got the air race blues.
OK, forget everything I said last week. If the damned engine ever gets back on the plane, we’re not going to follow our original break-in plan. I’m going to do it by myself. Or at least the first part of it.
Now, in case you’ve forgotten, back in early September the freshly rebuilt engine was bolted onto Tess and I innocently planned a break-in flight. My flight plan had us taking off from Santa Fe early in the morning, turning south and shooting down the gap between the northern tips of the Sandias and Rowe Mesa at low altitude, turning east at Moriarty, then barnstorming at 500 feet AGL across the empty wastes of eastern New Mexico and over our home base of Santa Rosa—where the colors on the sectional chart change from khaki to pale yellow, telling us we’d be below 5,000 feet. On we’d fly into West Texas, our nose pointed toward Herford, a town southwest of Amarillo, where we’d stop for fuel. All of this was planned for an optimal break-in: The lowest possible altitude; minimal low RPM ops; no long descents; landing with some power; and keeping the taxi as short as possible.
Next, we’d fly to Palo Duro Canyon to follow the wide dry wash called Prairie Dog Town Fork. This is where the sectional map changes from pale yellow to tan. We’d then be below 3,000 feet for the first time on the flight. A scant thirty miles farther on, at a random lat-long, the color on the sectional map changes to sage green and the terrain below our wings would stand at 2,000 feet above sea level. We would have travelled 349 miles to reach this point. There’s no closer low-lying land. From there we’d turn northeast and follow the edge of the escarpment until we reached Weatherford, OK, elevation 1,605 feet.
The next morning we’d do it all again. In reverse. Then it would be time for the new engine’s first oil change.
Of course, as you all know, that flight never got beyond Santa Fe’s Class D airspace. The engine vomited out all its oil in minutes. As it was really part of the racing story, I wrote about it for GA News, and was roundly criticized by my readers for having a “passenger” along during a “test flight.”
First off, it wasn’t a test flight. It was a break-in. Secondly, Lisa is a pilot, and a common (if not required) crewmember, so I never think of her as a passenger. That said, I do know the statistics on engine failures after rebuilds, and she and I discussed the issue at great length. She accepted the risk and basically threatened to chain herself to the propeller if I refused to take her along. But then she also insisted that we create a series of customized engine failure checklists for each runway we might use, and procedures at each altitude—a degree of safety I probably wouldn’t have bothered with on my own.
Still, I never thought of it as a test flight. Only an engine break-in.
But the story doesn’t end there. Remember last week when I told you that the flight instructor I use for my flight reviews declined to help me with my current currency issue? He followed that up with an email that quoted 14 CFR Part 91.407, a Federal Aviation Administration regulation titled, “Operation after maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration.”
I won’t bore you with the details, but the crux of it is that it’s verboten to carry a passenger in a plane after any maintenance that “may have appreciably changed its flight characteristics,” until the airplane has undergone an operational check, and that flight is logged in the airplane’s records. The Feds don’t use the word “test flight,” and any pilot with a Private ticket or higher can undertake the operational check. The section also includes several exceptions, including one that says a ground check will suffice if the rebuild “has not appreciably changed the flight characteristics or substantially affected the flight operation of the aircraft.”
Soooooo….. Does a simple engine rebuild fall under this regulation? As it turns out, that’s a hotly debated subject, but one that I’ve been thinking a lot about since the reg was pointed out to me. On the surface, I’d say, no, it doesn’t. At least not for most rebuilds. If you follow the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for overhauling the engine, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in performance before and after a rebuild—except when looking at the balance in your checking account. And it certainly wouldn’t cause an “appreciable” change in flight characteristics. Even if you put off the overhaul until your engine was getting pretty doggy, you might find your plane had quite the spring back in its step, but it wouldn’t fly differently. I personally feel that the intent of the law is aimed more at things like the installation of vortex generators, which totally change takeoff performance.
On the other hand, we didn’t just rebuild our C-85 engine. We (legally) converted it to a 0-200 stroker. That’s mainly for ease of parts availability, and while the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) paperwork says there’s no power change, most people I talked to reported a lovely increase in horsepower. Was that because they put off the rebuilds so long that it just seemed better compared to their worn out engines, or does the stroker really deliver more oomph?
The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if my “new” engine fell under 91.407, but the coffin on my original plan wasn’t nailed tightly shut just yet.
But the next nail came swiftly. Now, I’ve been behind on my reading. I have no excuse for that because it’s not like I’m busy flying, or anything. But two nights ago, I finally got to the August issue of AOPA Pilot. As I was thumbing though it, I came across Mike Busch’s excellent Savvy Maintenance column. And guess what? Yeah. He was talking about the damn 91.407, and it sounded like he was talking directly to me.
He was quick to point out that the regulation isn’t clear about what types of maintenance require a “test flight,” but he specifically talked about a crash following an engine overhaul. Well, a crash plus a second almost crash, both of which, thankfully, had happy endings—at least for the people in the planes, if not for the planes themselves.
In the first crash the pilot had his girlfriend and her two young children aboard on an Island-hopping day adventure in Puget Sound, Washington. Busch caustically wrote, “I can’t help asking what possessed this pilot to conduct his initial post-maintenance test flight (immediately following an extensive engine teardown and propeller overhaul) on an overwater flight with a cabin full of passengers, including young children.”
Well, at least I had the sense not to take my son with me on the first flight, but maybe I wasn’t taking this seriously enough, even so. I gave the article to Lisa.
She’d previously read the readers’ comments and the CFI’s email. The next day she told me she’d read the article and that she decided that when we get the engine back, I should orbit the Santa Fe airport—solo—for an hour or so, land, inspect, then fly solo back to our home base. If all was well, on another day we could make the formal break-in flight to sage green on the sectional chart as a team.
She reflected for a moment, then added, “the Universe usually needs to tell me something two or three times, but eventually I listen.”
The Law sayeth, “no person may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days.” It’s called currency. Generally, I fly so much that I never need to give currency a second thought. But thanks to my ongoing engine rebuild saga, my logbook, just like my wallet, is quickly running out of currency.
My most recent flight was on September 3rd. But it only had one takeoff and one (emergency) landing. Prior to that, I need to go back to July 24th when I flew a rented Ercoupe back to its owners in Arkansas after the Air Venture Cup. Let’s see here, counting 90 days from July 24th gets me to… October 22nd.
Which is this coming Sunday.
Two days from now.
If by some miracle Tessie were put back together today (Ha!) I could grab my copilot and re-attempt the break-in flight. But otherwise, I have a legal problem.
Of course, it’s not an unsolvable problem. It’s just proving to be a dammed difficult one.
Here’s the tale: My mechanic isn’t a guy you can pin down on dates, and doesn’t understand the concept of a deadline. Things get done when they get done. I suspect his father and his grandfather worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles, or maybe the Post Office. Still, as of today, my Mark III engine—my laugh or cry nickname for the third attempt at getting my engine working—isn’t even on the test stand yet, much less on the airplane.
Realistically, we’re looking at sometime around Thanksgiving before I have a (hopefully) airworthy airplane again.
At least we’ll have much to be thankful for this year.
But back to the law. The lack of the three landings doesn’t prevent me from flying solo. It’s just a restriction on carrying a passenger. The normal solution to this situation is to just jump into your airplane and do three quick takeoffs and landings while your passenger is unloading the luggage from the car.
But there’s nothing normal about my next flight. The plane will basically have a new engine. A new engine born and installed at high altitude, which is a problem for an aircraft engine. To break in properly, the engine needs to be run at high RPM and get to low altitude as quickly as its propeller can carry it there. About the worst thing I could do to it would be to make three takeoffs and landings in the first half hour of its life.
So doing a trio of touch-and-goes to start the day isn’t an option.
I decided the best solution was to rent some other plane and do the stupid takeoffs and landings and get current again before Tess was ready for testing. Now, before Tess joined the family I was checked out in an airplane in Santa Fe. Had I bothered to keep up with it, I could have just rented it for a half an hour and taken care of this on my own, but I’m so comfortable in Tess that I haven’t bothered to fly anything else for years, so that was out. I’d have to fly with an instructor.
It would be a little more expensive, but I didn’t expect any problems. I fired off an email to the flight instructor I fly with every two years for my flight reviews, told him what was going on, and asked for a mid-November flight.
His logic was that I didn’t need to be current to fly solo, and he didn’t feel I shouldn’t have a “passenger” along on a post-major maintenance flight.
Well, let’s talk about that. In many ways, this is a test flight, because you just never know what might happen after major maintenance. Like the instructor, many pilots argue that you shouldn’t have another person in the plane with you for such a flight. Others point to reduced accident statistics for two-pilot flight testing. The whole issue was discussed over several dinners in my household. Poor Rio was voted off the island by all the adults in the first round. No children—not even mature talented aviator children—on a “test flight.” But another adult?
That was a trickier question.
At first, I was against it because I knew there was at least a theoretical risk involved. But my long-time copilot Lisa saw it in a different way, and made a compelling argument for Crew Resource Management and the value of two sets of eyes, two sets of hands, and two minds. In her opinion I was safer with her onboard than I was by myself, and in the end she was proven correct. And that experience hasn’t changed her mind about coming along for round two.
But what to do to get current so it will be legal? I don’t want to get current in Tess once her engine is on and working, as I feel there is a risk of damaging the new engine. My regular go-to guy refuses to help, not wanting to be party to something he personally disapproves of—which while annoying, I actually respect. I don’t have any local pilot friends I could hitch a ride with, as ours is the only plane housed at our home airport. And several other crazy ideas I had either didn’t pan out, or—like traveling to Arkansas to rent the last Coupe I flew—were too expensive.
So now what?
Frankly, I don’t know. But, sadly, it looks like I have plenty of time to figure out how to get current, because currently Tess is nowhere near being ready to fly.