Shitty shitty shimmy

What wasn’t visible from two thousand feet above was just how rough the washboard forest road really was. Not the clean, flat, smooth ribbon of dirt it appeared to be when the engine failed; instead it was petrified ocean surf. Long chains of small ridges and shallow valleys, all closely placed, laid out lengthwise like dismembered and abandoned treads of a gigantic broken-down bulldozer. Still, the first few seconds after I touched down were smooth and relief flooded my soul. Everything was going to be OK. Then… Bam! The plane lurched once, then all hell broke loose. She was gripped by a grand mal seizure. Powerful, racking vibrations shook her stem to stern and wingtip to wingtip. The securely locked doors flung open, a blast of cold air flooding the cockpit. A geyser of fuel ejected from the header tank. Doused the windshield. I frantically pushed the yoke in, pulled it out, rocked it side to side. Stomped on the brake. No dice. In my mind’s eye I could see rivets popping from the skin and flying through the air in all directions. My flightpad holder separated from the dash and crashed to the floor. Then the seismic vibrations cleanly decapitated the bobble-headed dog figurine that lives on the glare shield.

Well, OK. We don’t really have a bobble-headed dog figurine on our glare shield. But if we had had one, it would have lost its head. The vibrations were that bad.



Oh. And I wasn’t really making an emergency landing on a forest road, either. It just felt  like it. I was actually making a garden-variety landing on Runway 17 at Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II Airport, a perfectly respectable stretch of concreate. The washboard wasn’t on the ground.

It was in my plane.

It’s called “shimmy,” and this bout of shimmy was so bad it actually stalled the engine before subsiding in a quivering rollout, leaving me high and dry and motionless in the middle of the runway at a busy urban airport. Tower… we have a problem.

Clearly, I couldn’t put off dealing with this any longer. No more deferments. In aviation circles, putting off a repair is often called “owner-deferred maintenance.” It happens all the time, because no owner can afford to fix all the things that are wrong with any airplane at any given moment. Of course, you’re required by law to fix any safety-related items, but beyond those, there’s always a long list of optional repairs to little squawks that vary from barely noticeable, to mildly annoying, to seriously aggravating. These squawks tend to get worse over time, like an evolving species.

And my nose wheel shimmy had evolved from barely noticeable, to mildly annoying, to seriously aggravating. In fact, it occurred to me—as I sat smack dab in the middle of the runway trying to restart my engine with the tower ordering the planes behind me to go around—that my nose wheel shimmy problem had now risen to the level of a safety issue.

Why had I put off dealing with it for so long? Partly money. But mostly because there’s no easy fix, as there’s no clear cause. In ‘Coupes, shimmy originates either in the nose gear or in the control mast, or both. It’s largely caused by worn bearings and bushings that result in a system of components designed to fit tightly together not fitting so tightly together, allowing oscillating vibrations to build up. Sometimes it can be one part, but usually it’s a little bit of wear on a bunch of components. Tracking down the smoking gun(s) is a looooooong exercise in trial and error. Oh, and some of these parts require serious disassembly of the airplane to reach. Luckily, in our case, the bulk of the evidence suggested that our problems originated in the easier to reach nose strut, rather than in the cockpit control mast, which requires actually removing the center fuel tank to reach.

So what’s the big deal? Why not just replace the strut instead of messing with it, you say? I wanted to, believe you me, but there’s a problem. While we Ercoupe custodians (you can’t really “own” a plane that’s older than you and which will outlive you) are thrice blessed that Univair still holds the type certificate, and not only has an extensive inventory of new old stock, but can actually make many of the parts we need, they don’t carry or produce every part that makes up the planes, and the nose strut is a good example of this. Univair doesn’t have any complete assemblies, nor do they even have all of the components that might be needed to fix one.

This leaves the Ercoupe custodian in need of a nose gear repair in the role of Dr. Frankenstein. And like Dr. F, the custodian often needs the services of a good grave robber. Dead airplane parts are brought back to life using a combination of new parts, serviceable used parts removed from airplane corpses, and in some cases modified or re-manufactured parts.

So I think you can see why, ostrich-like, I just buried my head in the sand, even though I knew trouble was brewing. And in my defense, I was preoccupied with bigger troubles. But now that the rest of the plane seems to be largely working again (knock on aluminum) it’s clear to me that I missed a golden opportunity to deal with the shimmy, as you’ll soon see.

I’ll save you the Odyssey and the Iliad and just go straight to the cliff notes: In the process of trying to figure out our options, I learned late in the process that the outfit that rebuilt my wing tanks also rebuilds nose struts. I’m 70% thrilled. Why only 70%? Because that nose strut lay on the floor of my mechanic’s hangar for four months during the engine mount and forward skin replacement repairs. Had I known earlier, we could have had it done while the component was already off the plane, saving both money and flight time. Here, having just gotten the plane back after many months of not flying, it’s once again laid up for repairs and I’m at serious risk of becoming an alcoholic.

Still, I’m happy that someone with a good rep, who really understands these systems, is on the case. But meanwhile, having already missed out on the Georgia race—maybe a lucky thing or I might be broken down far from home—I’ll now miss the Spaceport’s open house and no doubt at least the next race, possibly the next two, costing me yet another season, depending on how long this takes.

Tess is back in Santa Fe once again, where I accused my mechanic of having an affair with my airplane, nose strutless and the strut is en route to the rebuilder. How long this repair will take depends on what they find when they tear it down.

Only then will we know how many graves they’ll have to rob to get my girl back in the air again, and landing as smoothly as she flies.


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…


Slaves to the damn weather

“Damn,” I mutter under my breath as I jump down off the wing. It’s the weather. Well, more correctly, the weather forecast. On my iPhone a green and blue tidal wave: Air Sports Net’s wind forecast for tomorrow morning. The Plane Plan was to test-fly Tess, but thanks to the weather, it doesn’t look good for the home team.

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And it isn’t just Air Sports Net that has a dim view of the sky. Weather Underground, Dark Sky, and the Garmin Pilot MOS—Model Output Statistics—are all in agreement. A trinity plus one says the morning wind is unfit for flying in general, much less for a test flight.

Four weather sources? Isn’t that, like, excessive? Well, the truth is that we pilots are slaves to the weather. After all, we go to work in the sky, the weather’s home turf, so smart pilots do their best to discover what kind of mood the weather going to be in before we get there. Hey, good weather means good flying, while bad weather means bad flying—or more frequently, no flying at all. Which is why a bad weather forecast usually rates a “damn” in my book.

And I’ve been saying “damn” a lot lately.

Or a lot more than I used to, it seems to me. My home state is supposedly blessed with 310 days of sunshine a year, and in past years it was a rare thing when weather scrubbed a local flight. Not to say we don’t have our weather challenges here in New Mexico. We have a lot of rugged terrain and afternoon winds are common. These winds churn and tumble across the landscape, resulting in turbulent skies that make feather-weight planes like Tess good training grounds for future bull-riding rodeo stars.

But this year… this year is different. Howling winds early in the morning. Rain and snow. Poor visibility. Low ceilings. Fog! Fog in arid New Mexico! Who ever heard of such a thing? I’ve seen New Mexico fog maybe twice in three decades prior to this year. Now, it’s like London in Sherlock Holmes’ day.

But it’s not just New Mexico weather. As a family, we catch ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir to see what’s happening over the horizon, and to set a good example for Rio about the importance of being an informed citizen. And lately I’ve noticed that the weather is a big story. Occasionally the lead story, and commonly “above the fold” before the first commercial break.

Nearly every night.

That didn’t used to happen. Is the weather changing, or is the public’s focus on it changing? I’m not sure. But this damn weather is affecting more than my personal flying. Case in point: At the end of last year my plane friend Lisa needed about six or eight lessons to finish up her ticket, so she decided that the best solution was to fly every single day during her college’s Christmas vacation. And although quite pricey, she also decided to hangar her plane Warbler in Santa Fe to be close to her instructor to simplify travel logistics.

I think she got to fly twice over the normally cool, sunny break. The rest of the days were unflyable.

Damn weather.

Naturally, being tough and tenacious, Lisa rallied and figured, fine: I’ll keep the plane over there a little longer and get the flights done on weekends. But then each Friday evening I watched David Muir and his team display colorful radar images of yet another weekend storm set to sweep over the state. Weekend after weekend, storm systems rolled in and over us, and before we could take a breath, roll up our sleeves, and soak up some vitamin D, the next storm was set to pounce upon us.

Warbler is still in Santa Fe, three full months of hangar rent later.

And come to think of it, it’s not just the weekend weather. Rio’s Monday lessons have been weathered out so many times he’s taken to calling himself a Rusty Pilot.

Of course, another complication when it comes to weather is that weather forecasts are wrong as often as they are right. Take today for instance. This morning, I’m writing instead of flying—not a bad alternative, but never my first choice. Why? Because those four forecasts sixteen hours ago led me to believe that flying this morning would be a bad idea, so I scrubbed Tessie’s scheduled test flight.

The winds this morning over in Santa Fe were forecast to be 20 something gusting to 30 something from dawn on. It’s now three hours after sunrise and looking at one of my weather apps, right now there’s a three mile an hour wind (unlike most pilots, I disdain knots). Barely enough to rumple the wind socks at Santa Fe. I could have been making serious progress toward getting my baby back in the air and off to the races again.

Yeah. All four forecasts were wrong. And yes, I’m annoyed.

Dam weather.

Damn weather forecasts.

And looking forward, the next three days are forecast to have bad weather.

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Well… Damn.