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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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.