Not quite home yet

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.

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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.

 

Oil leak detectives

Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.

Silly me.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

But where?

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.

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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.

Eureka!

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.

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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.

Until I open the hangar door again.

 

 

The death of the Little Dutch Boy

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.

Until recently.

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.

It wasn’t.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

A bitch of a pitch

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.

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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…”

 

The air race blues

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.

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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.

A change of hearts

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.”

Huh?

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.

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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.”

Yeah. Me too.

 

Conundrum

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.

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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.

He refused.

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.

Seriously?

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.

Nor mine.

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.

 

Visions of an empty future

My hangar, of course, is still empty. And it’s going to be that way for at least another month and a half. By the time I have our plane back, I’ll be out of currency and it will be illegal for me to take up a passenger until I’ve carried out three takeoffs and landings. How I’m going to work that into the minimize-the-landings-to-break-in-the-engine thing I don’t know. I may have to rent someone else’s plane before our test flight, just for the stupid takeoffs and landings. But I’ve yet to hear any updates from the mechanics, so that’s a problem for another day.

But back to the empty hangar.

On our way back from the STEM Expo I told you about last week, we stopped at the hangar to drop off our trophies and rubber chickens. It was strange, spending one day in a hangar teeming with noise, motion, and people—and the next day standing in quiet solitude in another hangar.

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But as I returned my trophies to their shelf, I had a stunning revelation. There’s going to be a lot more empty hangar in my future. And it makes me both happy and sad at the same time. Here’s the story:

For background, in case I never told you, the family plane isn’t mine. I’m her pilot, but the plane belongs to my mother. She originally bought it as an investment. Yeah, that didn’t work out too well, at least, not in the financial sense. But as an investment in fun and adventure for her, the payoff has been beyond all expectations. So my mother holds the title, and she has willed N3976H straight to my son Rio. I’m the trustee until he’s of age, but Tess goes from her to him.

I just keep the oil warm.

Mom is still alive and well and Rio is only fifteen, so I don’t give this much thought. At least I didn’t until this weekend. No, Mom is fine, but Rio—pretty much for the first time—is talking seriously about college. He has his eyes set on aeronautical engineering; a good fit for him, and a career field that’s going to be wide open for his age group. At the Expo he spent quite a bit of time talking to engineering students from the different colleges in the state. Prior to this weekend, he’d had his eye on the excellent (but pricy) Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Embry-Riddle actually has a campus here in New Mexico, but the local campus is pilot training orientated; and while there are a number of mechanical engineering programs at the state universities, none focus as narrowly on aerospace as he’d like.

But he had an eye-opening conversation with one new graduate who’d discovered that he was unable to land a job because he didn’t have a master’s degree. This led to a conversation about an accelerated BS/MS program at one of our State’s universities that Rio liked the sound of. While not a full-fledged aerospace program, it had an option of an aerospace emphasis.

Rio and I chatted about it at dinner after the Expo. I told him that while I felt a more generalized course of study wouldn’t be as interesting, it had two advantages: It would give him more career options; and it might make him a better engineer, as he could bring a wider perspective to bear on a problem. As an afterthought I also told him if he was going to school instate, he could fly home with his dirty laundry each weekend in his Ercoupe.

His dark brown eyes lit up at the prospect.

Standing in the empty hangar the next afternoon it hit me: He’ll be off to college in three years. Hopefully, his grandmother—now 91—will still be alive at that point, but it’s only appropriate that he take his plane with him when he goes off to study aerospace engineering, whether or not he uses it to come visit his lonely empty nest parents on weekends. It will let him continue to build hours and experience, keep his awareness of the needs of pilots sharp, and is likely to make him (even more) popular with the ladies. Ah… to be young and to have an airplane of one’s own…

But when this happens, I won’t have a plane to fly anymore. At least not one waiting eagerly for me in my hangar, mine to fly whenever I choose.

In three short years, all my nests will be empty. Home, hearth, and hangar.

All good things (and times) come to an end

Well, hell. It’s over. I mean, I knew it was coming… But I didn’t know today would be the day. I sigh and set my phone down on the kitchen table. Drain my wine glass. A strong cold wind rattles the windows, matching my sombering mood. Maybe one more glass tonight, as a nightcap.

As a yearcap. Well, a nearly twoyearcap.

Yes, the final chapter of Air Racing From the Cockpit debuted online tonight at General Aviation News. I was checking the website on my phone because the battery on my FlightPad was low. Of course, that final chapter won’t appear in the print version until the October 5th issue, but the end of the journey is official, and damn, am I ever going to miss it.

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It’s been an extraordinary series for me—as a pilot, as a writer, as a person. Starting off as an assignment to write a few articles about what it’s like to join the Sport Air Racing League (SARL), for both the magazine and the website, Air Racing From the Cockpit blossomed into a mind-boggling 34-part series that dominated huge chunks of the publication, sometimes spreading over four full pages, my words illustrated by the work of my amazing photographer pal Lisa.

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The series was actually scheduled to run even longer, following all the races this year, which would have brought the total up to 40 installments, but my on-going engine problems cut that short. Actually, I’m the one who made the call to wrap up early. Sure, mechanical troubles are part of the story of airplanes, but I knew my readers were more interested in racing than wrenching. Fans of Air Racing From the Cockpit would quickly tire of Air Racing From the Maintenance Shop, so I felt a duty to end the series well.

Still, a 34-part series? Who the hell gets to write a 34-part series? I’m still pinching myself.

The entire body of work totals up to something like 60,000 words. That’s book length. About the same number of words that a typical novel has. So what about that? Will I turn it into a book?

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Clip art Courtesy Clipart Panda

No, I don’t think so. First off, that’s cheating. At least that’s how I feel about it. I hate it when a writer dusts off a bunch of old stuff, stitches it together, and calls it a book. Books need to be crafted as a single cohesive unit. I guess, since this is really one long story, it would read better than a book full of Dear Abby columns, but it still doesn’t seem right to me. It wouldn’t be an honest labor for a wordsmith. Plus, from a practical standpoint, why would anyone buy something they could read online for free? All the dispatches are right here, all you have to do is scroll back in time a few pages to get to the beginning.

Of course, there are a book-full of events, encounters, excursions, and escapades that happened between the pages of Air Racing from the Cockpit that didn’t make it into print. That’s a book I am considering. Writing the story of the story, as it were, using the Races as a scaffolding on which to hang a whole new work.

(So, if there are any book publishers out there interested, you know where to find me! Oh, and if you don’t, there’s an email link on the top left above if you’re on a desktop… If you are on a mobile device, it gets bumped to the bottom somewhere.)

Meanwhile, it’s not like GA News has kicked me to the curb. I’ve got some Reno coverage coming up and I’ll be writing about the season finale of the Red Bull Air Races. Plus, I’ve got an article that compares air racing to poker. Just wait and see.

But I’ll miss “my” series. I had the time of my life writing it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. But it’s time to move on. All good things (and times) come to an end. What’s ahead?

I don’t know yet, but my editor had a suggestion. She wrote me, saying: “We’ll just have to find a new obsession for you to write about.”

Agonizing choices

It was the last straw in a pretty big haystack. The email from my mechanic read, “that might not work with our time limits,” going on to explain that the engine monitor I had chosen to protect our overhauled engine could take four weeks to get to him. Apparently they are airplane-specific devices, made and programed to order.

The time limit he was talking about was my return to flight deadline, and it was set by the race schedule. If I missed the mid-August race I’d be fatally behind in championship points, with no chance at all of standing at the top of the podium. Actually, to be honest, I really couldn’t afford to miss even a single race. With this new wrinkle, I would be missing four.

I got up from my desk and wandered back into the flight lounge. I stared at the wall-sized map. Gazed at the dry-erase checkered flags marking each race. Studied the calendar below the map.

What were my options?

The first flight of the overhauled engine needed to get to low altitude—and quickly—to set the piston rings properly during the engine break-in. I had planned to use the mid-August race in Urbana, OH, as the break-in flight. But now I wouldn’t have an engine monitor in time for that.

I could make the flight without it, and install it when I got back. But… no. That’s crazy. I don’t want to do the break-in without the benefit of a good engine monitor.

I could choose a different monitor. But I spent a lot of time looking at the options. I don’t really like any of the others. And I don’t want to spend thousands on a monitor I don’t like just to get back in the races.

So if I miss the Urbana race, what then? The next week I’m in Albany, OR, teaching for AOPA. The weekend after that is the T-bird race in Arizona, which requires a high altitude flight to reach—the very worst thing for breaking in the new engine. That takes me to September 9th. Galveston. A perfect venue to break in the new engine. But now I’m missing five races.

No coming back from that far behind.

I curse under my breath as I realize that my chain of decisions on our engine problems has led directly to this moment. A moment of failure. A moment in which all I worked for is wasted. The flags and the calendar show only five races left after Galveston. To make up the lost points, I’d need to defeat ten planes in each race. Not going to happen. There just aren’t that many people racing in my category and class.

It’s over.

My quest for the Gold is finished.

Now what? I decide to go to Galveston. It’s a perfect engine break-in flight. The race is a cool zigzag back and forth across the bay. Plus Debbie and Rio love the city. And of course, I need to go to the final race of the season. I have enough points that I’m pretty sure that this late in the season I can count on coming in second place nationwide. At least I’ll be a two-time National Champion, and there’s nothing worse than a 2-time champ not showing up to receive his trophy.

But the other four races? They really aren’t worth the money it would cost to get to them, with no chance of moving into the top slot. As much as I love racing, I just can’t justify the cost without the chance of reaching my goal.

I pick up the eraser, and one by one, erase the races. From my map.

From my world.

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