Floods, cars, boats, helicopters… and airplane engines

This is how I heard the tale:

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

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

And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, where to start…

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

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

Then Springfield happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was going to have to rethink my priorities.

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

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

Or maybe not.

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

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

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

 

The sad truth of the Lindbergh “we”

We’re in Miami, Oklahoma, and I’ve never been so lonely in my life. That’s because the “we” is just Tess and me. And she’s not even with me, actually. She’s snug in a hangar out at the airport and I’m stuck all by myself at the Hampton Inn under low grey skies that mimic my mood.

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This trip has been going downhill since before it started.

It was supposed to be a father-son adventure across half of the county to run a race out over the islands of Lake Erie, but Rio fell ill and didn’t feel recovered enough to make the long trip. Lisa, Rio’s normal flight crew substitute, had other commitments; and Debs wasn’t going to leave her sick baby’s side—so I was on my own.

Oh, well, I told myself, it’s only for a few days. But I never made it to the race, and the few days grew to a week. And more. Engine problems stranded me for days far from home, and once fixed, I still couldn’t go home. A replacement cylinder needs to be broken in, and this obligates me to remain at low altitude. Solo with only the plane for company, “we” are following the rivers of the Midwest ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico, and it feels like the plane and I have been away from home for years.

Actually, flying solo is oddly restful. Planes do make good company in flight. They talk to you and require your attention. They are also fun to be with. But on the ground, at the end of the day, the fun ends.

I take my meals by myself, with only my phone for company. How pathetic — checking email two dozen times waiting for my entree. I explore new communities off the beaten path, visit tiny museums, poke my head into funky shops. But with no one to share the experiences with, they are all empty adventures. This lonely journey makes me realize that aviation is sweetest shared.

I hope it’s a long, long time before I have another flight where “we” is just the plane and I.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

For want of a spare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I immediately reject option three as unnecessarily risky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look into my empty wallet and change my mind.

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

 

Machine Gun Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

I reach for the ignition switch.

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

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

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

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

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

To the right. Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

And no one is trying to shoot me down.

 

Slow flight

Ah. So this is what it’s like to fly a hot air balloon. The view is fine, but our movement over the ground is so slow that it feels like we’re standing still. Nearby mesa tops remain stationary. Or nearly so. The minute hand sweeps across the face of my pilot’s watch and no landmark appears any nearer. Distant roads stay distant.

Frankly, it’s eerie. Having air race blood in my veins, I think I’d make a poor balloon pilot. Of course balloon pilots are immune from my current worry.

Rio consults the chart, “We’re still inside the VOR ring.”

The compass rose ring on the chart around Anton Chico VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) radio station is 25 miles across. We’ve been flying over this one for half an hour. Our ground speed indicator shows 36 miles per hour. This is ridiculous. And I’m starting to think about all those pilots who run out of gas and crash ten miles from their destinations.

I run the math again. In my head. Because my navigation system apparently can’t deal with speeds this slow. Normally my Garmin Pilot App displays a constantly updated ETE, or Estimated Time Enroute, telling me how much time it will take to get to my destination. Using it, I can quickly compare this remaining flight time estimate with my elapsed flight time, and know if I’ve got the gas to get where I’m going. But on this flight, anytime our ground speed drops below 45 miles per hour, the ETE screen goes blank—right when I need it the most.

Usually gas isn’t much of a worry for me, even though Ercoupes don’t have what most people would consider functional gas gauges. Instead, I know that if I put six-and-one-half inches of fuel in each wing tank I can fly for two hours. I measure the fuel depth with a clear plastic straw marked with a scale. That gives me a 200-mile range, more or less. For reserve, regulations require me to have an additional 30 minutes of fuel onboard, but my personal minimums are greater because we have a lot of open spaces between airports out here in the West. I consider my header tank to be my reserve: A full hour of fuel.

Today’s flight is only ninety miles. We’re ferrying Tess from her home base in Santa Rosa over Rowe Mesa to Santa Fe for her annual inspection. An annual inspection is a religious ritual in which you take your plane to the Maintenance Temple and make a sacrifice of a big pile of money so that the Maintenance Gods will grant you another year’s safe flying.

Yes, plane ownership is a religion.

Our speed drops. Again. We are at full power, in level flight, and our speed over the ground is—I kid you not—31 miles per hour.

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Luckily we’re half way to Santa Fe, because if we’d had to go this speed the whole way, the trip would have taken 2 hours and 54 minutes, leaving us with only six minutes of fuel on landing. Of course, I’d never fly the tanks that dry. I’d have aborted the attempt long before.

Still, I’ve burned through an hour of fuel already. I’ve got another hour in the wings, plus my reserve. At this speed we’ll just be tapping into the reserve on arrival. That’s OK. That’s what a reserve is for. But I confess, I’ve never bucked a headwind like this one, and I never thought I’d be worrying about fuel on a ninety-mile flight.

So what’s up with that? We’re flying into the teeth of an eighty-mile per hour gale, that’s what. A silent gale. An invisible gale. It’s sunny and the air is calm with only the occasional jolt to remind us we are passing through a fluid medium rather than sitting on a mountaintop taking in the view.

More bizarrely, Santa Fe is reporting calm winds. And even though my nav system is on strike about our arrival time, it still shows my altitude above the ground: We’re only 1,600 feet up. I consider dropping lower to try and get out of the winds but there are two problems. First, the terrain is rising and with both Rio and I aboard we’re close to our upper weight limit. That means Tess doesn’t climb well. Actually, even lightly loaded she’s not a fast climber. She’s not the kind of plane you want to barnstorm rising terrain in.

And the second problem is wind shear.

Wind shear is a violent difference in wind between two altitudes. And if you’re in 80 mile per hour winds at only 1,600 feet and it’s calm at the surface, it’s very likely that there will be a wind shear boundary between you and the surface. Wind shear can affect aircraft lift, so passing through it can cause a plane to momentarily stop flying and start falling. As I didn’t know how close to the surface the wind shear would be, I didn’t want to chance it. So we kept crawling over the ground up in the wind.

Rio jerks forward in his seat three times, like a jockey trying to urge a stubborn horse onwards. “Come on,” he growls.

I laugh. Then I run the numbers in my head again and start considering my options if our speed drops into the twenties. Can the head wind get so strong that we’d be moving forward through the air at 110 miles per hour but moving backwards over the ground?

Yes. Yes it can, but rarely this low. Winds that strong are usually high up in the atmosphere where airliners roam. Still if it gets much worse we won’t have the fuel to continue.

What then?

Plan A is to turn tails and run for home. As soon as I reverse course I know my 31 mph ground speed will jump to 190 mph as the headwind becomes a tailwind.

We can get home quickly. Very quickly.

Plan B is to turn south and strike out for the nearest airport for refueling, then climb back into the wind and slug it out again. But I comfort myself that even at 31 miles per hour, we can make it to Santa Fe.

Then our ground speed drops to 29 miles per hour.

But only for an instant. Then it increases to a blazing 35 miles per hour. I stay the course.

And we make it. Two-point-one hours on the Hobbs for a ninety-mile trip. Average time for the course: 42.86 miles per hour.

A most un-airplane like speed.

Heavy reading

“Paper or plastic?” is the common question at checkout. When it comes to my groceries, I’m ambivalent. It seems that the clerks always overload the paper bags so that they suffer structural failures halfway across the parking lot, but the modern plastic bags are so thin as to be only mildly superior to thin air.

But where I always prefer paper to plastic is in my books. I’d much rather sit down with a “real” book than read on my computer, iPad, or Kindle. And if I have a choice of a hardcover book over a paperback, I’ll get the hardcover.

That said, I just bought a book that simply doesn’t function in paper. I should’a chosen plastic.

The book in question has the riveting tile of FAR AIM, and it’s the bible of the modern aviator. FAR stands for Federal Aviation Regulations, and AIM stands for Aeronautical Information Manual.

FAR is the rules, AIM are the procedures.

It’s important to know both. Back when I was a fledgling aviator, the books were two separate volumes (and in those days AIM stood for Airman’s Information Manual) and I wish they were still two books because today’s combined FAR AIM tips the scale at nearly three pounds.

In paperback.

There’s no hardcover option because no one in his or her Wright mind would buy it. You see, not only would it weigh too much to carry in any general aviation airplane, but it would be cost prohibitive as well. Every year the FAR AIM is updated.

Why did I say this book doesn’t function in paper? Well, while the book is large in both weight and length—it’s 1,123 pages long—the print is small and the margins tiny. Due to the number of pages, the book is so thick that it won’t even open properly. Along the binding the text in the center disappears into a canyon of paper, making it nearly impossible to read when held in the lap, the only place to hold a three-pound book.

If ever there was a book that was good for nothing but ballast, this is it. Thank God I didn’t have to pay for shipping, thanks to being a member of Amazon Prime.

I struggled with the book for about two hours before I said to myself, you should’a chosen plastic. In another hour I changed course, set aside the three-pound bundle of paper, and ordered the Kindle version. It’s lighter, plus I can make the text any size I want to make it.

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It won’t make the reading any lighter, but it will lighten the load.

 

Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.

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Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.

 

A wrench to the head

“Hey,” I told Rio, “that looks like the Las Vegas Airport. Pause the DVD for a sec.”

We were watching a video I stumbled across on eBay called Fly Fast! about Rare Bear, the iconic Reno Race plane that dominated the Valley of Speed for decades. It was being offered up by a seller in Sparks, Nevada for a minimum bid of $6.99 with free shipping.

Well within the don’t-need-to-ask-your-wife-first price range.

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Rio stabbed at the controls and the image froze. We both leaned forward and peered at the TV screen. Darn if it didn’t look like the terminal at KLVS, the “little” Las Vegas just twenty miles up the road from our house.

And, as it turns out, it was. Because, and I totally didn’t know this, the Rare Bare came to our home town in August of 1989 to set a three kilometer Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)-sanctioned world speed record. The highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat ripped a hole in the skies over our hometown airport at 528.33 miles per hour, making it the fastest piston-powered plane in the world, a speed record that still stands today, 27 years after it was set.

It really bothered me that I was learning about this from a six dollar and ninety-nine cent eBay find. Because I should have known. I should have known simply because I’m a local pilot, and a FAI world speed record holder myself. And I should have known because I lived in Las Vegas in 1989, and I hung out at the airport a lot.

Oh, but it gets worse.

I should have known because back in 1989 I was a journalist working the local paper, the Las Vegas Daily Optic. As a local pilot and newsman, how could I have been totally unaware of the biggest thing in aviation to happen in town since Lindbergh landed here in 1928?

Watching the video in my warm, cozy house, I began getting that odd sensation you get when you drink too much cold medicine. You know, like your head has become a helium balloon and is floating two feet above your shoulders on a string. How could this have happened on my watch, and I missed it? It was surreal.

And as the video went on, things got worse. There was footage of Rare Bear’s famous pilot, Lyle Shelton, signing copies of the Optic, which featured a front-page picture of his plane. So it’s not like the paper missed the event.

Where the heck was I when all of this was going on?

I searched my memory banks in vain. I simply had no recall whatsoever of the event. After the movie was over, I sat and mentally tried to reassemble my past life. First I double-checked with Deb on what year we were married.

Never a good idea.

Next, I counted forward on my fingers. Yeah. I was still with the paper when Rare Bare came to town. But to be sure, I dug around in my files and found a old and faded resume—was that typed on a typewriter??—and confirmed that my position at the paper wasn’t eliminated until the spring of the following year, when the publisher decided to cut staff to save money.

So I was there, on the job, when Rare Bare made its flight. So why didn’t I remember it?

“Maybe they dropped a wrench on your head,” Rio offered helpfully.

Maybe so.

Or maybe I was on vacation. Out of state. Yeah. That might explain it. But there was no way to reassemble those kinds of details nearly three decades dead.

Or was there?

“I know how we can solve this mystery,” I told Rio. “Microfilm.”

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

So I explained to him that microfilm is a way of archiving printed publications for long-term storage. Pages are laid out and photographed on 35mm-wide positive-image film. Months of newspapers can be condensed into a reel of film that will fit in your hand. I also told him about the sexier microfiche, index-card-sized sheets of plastic with microscopic magazine pages on them.

Then I was struck by a thought. Perhaps neither existed anymore.

“I guess it’s all done on computers nowadays,” I told Rio. Would old microfilm be scanned into computers? If not, were there still microfilm reading machines?

We went on an expedition to find out. The very next day, I picked Rio up from school and Lisa up from her office at the Community College (easy to do as Rio’s school is on the campus of the college) and we drove across town to New Mexico Highlands University, which was bedecked in purple banners and balloons for Homecoming. We found a parking spot on 8th Street a half block from the wide cascading stairs that lead up to the Donnelly Library—which itself was celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The plan was to use the microfilm archives to see who took the photo—certainly it wasn’t me—and to see if my byline was missing from the days before and after the event, a clue that I wasn’t around. “What will you do if it turns out you took the picture?” asked Rio.

“Have a stroke,” I told him. There was no way I could have photographed an event like this and lost all memory of it.

On the second floor, in the heart of the periodicals, we found three microfilm machines and bank after bank of drawers holding film and fiche. Bank after bank of cabinets holding every paper but the one we were looking for.

Dejected, I turned around and spotted a small black cabinet standing all by itself on the opposite wall. The Las Vegas Daily Optic, on microfilm, from 1880 to last month.

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

We searched through the drawers until we found the reel that contained August of 1989. We took the box out and pulled three chairs up in front of one of the microfilm readers.

Whereupon three very smart people couldn’t, to save our lives, figure out how to load the damn film into the stupid machine.

Lisa combed the library’s stacks and finally found an employee who figured out the machine we were trying to load was broken and took us to the “better one” in the government docs section.

Soon the past was whizzing past us, black and white, and grainy—the way the past is supposed to look. Spinning the dial on the machine, we watched the Friday TV Guide zip past. Then the supermarket insert. June 9th. I turned the dial farther to the right and the pages became a blur. I stopped at June 28th. Again I sped up the scan, and we closed in. August 10, 16, 18.

And there it was.

Monday. August 21, 1989. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bare on the cover of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Just like the copies we’d seen him signing on the video.

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

I was thunderstruck. It felt like someone had dropped a wrench on my head. I stared at the slightly fuzzy image, speechless. Even faced with proof positive I had been on the scene, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the event. We flipped through the paper in both directions. The Optic ran three articles on the speed record, one the week before, one the day of the attempt, and another the next day. And in the days leading up to the record, and in the days following, my byline littered the pages of the paper.

I wasn’t on vacation.

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And to add insult to injury, the photo wasn’t really all that great. I worked at the paper as a photographer for about two-and-a-half years. I was good at it, bringing home more than a dozen New Mexico Press Association and Associated Press awards. In the time I was there, back in the days of fully manual cameras, no less, I took some amazing news photos.

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I keenly remember many of these impressive images, but I guess time and distance have led me to believe that they were the norm. Reality slapped me in the face in the quiet university library. A little girl with a rabbit. Road construction. A little girl with a dog. Seriously? Where was the Pulitzer-class kick-butt photography I remembered? I yearned to show Rio at least one amazing image on the microfilm viewer, but I couldn’t find one to be proud of.

My days as a globetrotting photographer were more mundane than my grainy, black and white memory held it out to be.

I guess Rare Bear isn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

 

Disclaimer: I can’t really recommend the movie Fly Fast! And that’s not because it has me questioning my sanity. It just isn’t that great of a movie. I’d only give it one quarter of one star on a five-star rating system.

 

A cheap non-death

The email was taking forever to download. Who on earth was sending me such a large file? When it finally finished, and I saw who sent it, my blood ran cold.

It was from my mechanic.

Tess was in his shop for a simple oil change. Nothing else, for once. Or so I thought. But as it often turns out with airplanes, there was an unexpected problem. While changing the oil, the boys at the shop discovered a crack in the left exhaust stack. Not just a little crack, mind you, but a deep jagged one that cut deeply into the skin of the pipe, traveling nearly around the tube around its perimeter.

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When I called my mechanic he told me that in his judgment the pipe would have “completely separated” within five hours on our upcoming cross country to South Carolina.

Replacement was the best option, provided a replacement could be found. Engine parts for seventy-year-old airplanes aren’t exactly on the shelf at Walmart. We’re luckier than most owners of old airplanes, however, because an outfit in Colorado called Univair holds the type certificate for the Ercoupe. They have a lot of “new old stock” parts in house, and if they don’t have what you need, they have all the old tools and jigs to build it for you.

The problem is that this is not a fast process.

Still, it beats haunting junkyards for parts. Some owners of orphaned planes need to own several just to ensure that they have parts as things break down.

So it wasn’t a matter of could Tess be fixed, but simply how fast. We’ve still got four races to go this season. Our rivals are ahead of us, but it’s not hopeless. Unless we miss a race. Then it would be all over for our hopes of wrenching the Production Gold Trophy from Team Ely.

I was so focused on getting the repairs done in time that I didn’t even think to stop and ask what all of this meant. But it was Lisa’s first question: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Luckily the question was in an email, so she didn’t see my deer-in-the-headlights dumbfounded expression.

Naturally, I quickly did some online research before answering her. One of the beautiful things about email is no one ever really knows for sure when you received it. It’s much easier to appear smart in email than over the phone.

I found an Advisory Circular entitled “Inspection and Care of General Aviation Aircraft Exhaust Systems.” Advisory Circulars are non-regulatory publications put out by the FAA to help interpret regulations, or educate the flying community about safety issues. One of the first things this Circular said was that exhaust system failures have led to “numerous fatalities and injuries to pilots and passengers.”

Who knew?

Of course, there’s the obvious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. But apparently an exhaust failure can also cause a partial or complete loss of engine power. And additionally, we’re told that exhaust system failures are a leading cause of engine fires.

I emailed Lisa back, “Did I ever tell you about Advisory Circulars?”

Meanwhile, my mechanic did find a part and got it overnighted out. By week’s end, and well in time for our cross-country “commute” to the race, we were good to go. The cost?

$1,284.00

The part was about four hundred bucks. The rest was labor. It was a tricky part to get to, requiring the entire cowling and nose bowl to be removed. And removing the nose bowl requires removing the prop, and so forth. All this takes time, and thus money.

When I fired her up to bring her home the cockpit filled with an odd smell, part space heater burning off dust at first use in the autumn, part new toaster oven on its maiden voyage. But once in the air, I had to back off on my throttle. I had more power than I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe the crack had been robbing me of some performance. I couldn’t wait to get back on the race course.

A few days later, while hitching a ride with my friend Eve, she asked what our next flying adventure was, and somehow we ended up on the subject of the exhaust stack and the cost of its repair. She asked the same question Lisa did: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Of course, this time I knew the answer, having already researched it. “Well, probably nothing in our case, but theoretically exhaust problems can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, or engine failures. All of which would suck. Particularly if all three happened at once.”

Without batting an eye Eve responded, “That repair sounds like a cheap non-death to me.”

 

The rest of the story: While carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, and fire are all real risks for various sorts of airplanes, we were at low risk for any of the above. Our cabin leaks like a sieve, so it’s unlikely we’d be strongly affected by exhaust gasses; power loss would apparently be minimal on our plane; and fires are most common in turbocharged engines. When chatting with the guys at the shop after the repairs, they told me that on Tess all we would have been likely to suffer was a hell of a lot of noise and a partial failure of the carb heat system.