First the thick T-shirt from Eddie Bauer. Next, a heavy polo-style sweater, also, probably, from Eddie Bauer. After that comes the scarf. Then my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. I’m getting ready for a frigid flight. I slide my hands into warm gloves. According to the internet, it’s 17° F at our homebase. On the ground. And the sky gets colder the higher you go up.
I finish by pulling my thick Fly Duluthknit cap down over my ears. They really know how to make hats in northern Minnesota. Of course, my friends in northern Minnesota are laughing their asses off right now if they’re reading this—they wear short sleeve dress shirts at 17 degrees. I’ll bet they don’t even reach for their extra warm, thick, and wonderful artic-proven Fly Duluth knit caps until the mercury goes seriously into the negative. But we Southwesterners have thinner blood, and this is the first real cold snap of the season. So I’m not even remotely acclimated to the fact it’s winter. Heck, the cabin heater hose in Tess is still disconnected.
Luckily, however, I had the foresight to plug in her electric engine pre-heater. I did not, however, have the foresight to bring a hammer with me to the airport. Why would this matter? Because the padlock to Tessie’s hangar is entombed in ice like the alien in The Thing from Another Worldwhen I arrive.
I get out my phone and amend my flight plan for a later departure. Luckily for me, the ice-clad lock proves less an obstacle than it appears; but my real problems have just begun.
As I push on the left hangar door, it starts to open with a crunching groan, hesitates, then rattles back, pouring cold, blue early winter morning light into my frozen hangar. I push on the right door. It grudgingly moves two feet and then jams solid. I pull back. No go. It’s stuck. Stuck fast.
Great. I can only get half my airplane out.
Debbie starts optimistically sweeping the snow from the short stretch of crumbling asphalt in front of Tessie’s wheels while I hack, swear, kick, and chop at the ice that’s lined the right door’s tracks. A north-facing hangar is only a good idea in three out of four seasons.
At long last, both doors stand open to the frigid world. Time to make ready for flight. Weird things happen to airplane metal and plastic at temperature extremes on both ends, so I do a more cautious than usual preflight. The elevator moves smoothly. The ailerons do not. But that’s a good thing on an Ercoupe. Their ailerons are interlinked to their rudders and their nosewheels. With Tess’s nosewheel planted firmly on the frozen ground, her ailerons and rudders would move freely only if they were horribly broken. The oil level is good. I pull off a glove and reach in to caress a cylinder to ensure that the engine heating system is working. It’s hot to the touch, burning my finger.
I check the fuel levels with a Fuelhawkstraw. They’re much lower than I expect, until I remember that fuel contracts significantly when it’s cold. In fact, in his bid to win the 1946 Bendix Air race by flying non-stop, Paul Mantz dropped containers of dry ice into a fuel truck to contract the gasoline so he could squeeze more of the fuel into the tanks of his heavily modified Mustang, Race 46.
It worked. He took the Gold that year. And the next. And the next.
I, however, decide that it’s prudent to add a few galloons before I take off into the white wonderland that stretches between here and Santa Fe.
Tess ready, I pull her out onto the crunching snow and button up the hangar. Or try to. I’ve carelessly left the open lock dangling from the door latch, and dripping water from the towering hangar roof has sloshed into the innards of the lock, freezing solid, blocking the lock as if it were full of cement. Rio takes the glacial lock to the Jeep and holds it close to the air vent, heater on high to thaw it out, while I amend my flight plan for a second time.
Debs worries that I’ll pick up ice on the wings. She’s been watching Air Disasters with Rio, Grandma, Lisa, and me. Not to worry, baby, that only happens in clouds. The sky is pale blue today, the ceiling of a baby boy’s nursery, with not a hint of a cloud. Even if there had been a cloud, it would probably freeze solid and crash to earth in a shower of broken crystals.
Finally, screaming metal doors closed again, lock thawed, I carefully mount the wing and step into my refrigerator of a cockpit. I’m prepared for a long, cold flight. Fuel open. Master on. Beacon on. Throttle cracked. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Press the starter.
The prop spins round and round, then she starts with less complaint than I banked on, given the temperature. I taxi across the snow, throwing up less of a blizzard than I expected, darn it, then make my way to the runup area to wait for all the engine parts to come to heated harmony.
Finally, the oil temp in the green, I do my run up and pull onto the runway. It seems that no sooner than I push the throttle forward we are airborne, climbing like a jet fighter, the frigid air turbocharging my engine and airfoils, Tess’s white wings stretching out over a white world below.
Pilots may not, but airplaneslovecold air.
But quickly I discover that this flight is not the frigid episode of Ice Pilotsthat I expected. In the cloudless sky, the sun filters though my greenhouse of a canopy, and with my newly re-connected heater duct keeping my feet toasty I actually start getting, well, too warm.
So I reverse the winterization process. I take off my headset, and ears momentarily assaulted by 113 decibels of pounding cylinders, pull off my thick Fly Duluth knit cap. Next, gripping a fingertip in my teeth, I slide my warm gloves off my hands. Then I slither out of my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. Finally, I remove my scarf.
Liberated from the frozen ground, high in the winter sky, basking in bright sunlight, my frigid flight turns out to be comfortably warm
I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.
I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.
I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.
I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.
I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.
Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.
Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.
I was on cloud nine.
Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.
Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.
It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.
I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.
Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…
The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.
Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!
Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.
I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.
I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.
The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.
I heard the sound of a party.
Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.
I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.
I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.
At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.
Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.
“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.
But that ear-to-ear smile was not to last.
Now, for background, you need to know that Tess, when it comes to maintenance, has become nearly as much trouble as a Warbird. Yeah. She’s “down.” Again. I would’a thought that for a woman of her age hot flashes would be a thing of the past, but just days out of that killer annual earlier this summer, she began to overheat. Big time.
I’ll spare you the pain of the details, and myself the PTSD of recounting this latest woe, but the bottom line is that two of her four nearly-new cylinders have to be pulled off. According to my logbook, I took her to her new shop about six weeks ago, and it’s likely to be several more weeks before she’s back in my hands (or I’m back in hers, as the case may be).
But that said, my logbook is hardly empty of Ercoupe time since. In fact, I’ve been flying a lot. How can that be? Well, the “family” has a spare airplane.
Yep. I’ve been flying with my buddy Lisa as the safety pilot in her plane, helping her polish her skill set prior to her next round of formal training. Actually… Come to think of it, Lisa’s skill set has become so polished that I haven’t had to touch the controls in… well, I can’t remember how long it’s been. But each time we fly, she’s kind enough to let me take the controls at some point so that I can feel like a real pilot again.
Most days, after Lisa flies, Rio takes over the left seat and we go up and polish the maneuvers that his flight instructor is teaching him as well. We had been doing Rio’s training in Tess, but with her in the Airplane Hospital again, Lisa loaned him the keys to Warbler.
We all started joking that it’s a good thing we have a spare airplane. But as it would turn out, one spare Ercoupe isn’t enough. And that’s why Lisa lost her smile.
So much for background. Now on to today’s Plane Tale…
We rose early—me from the master suite and Lisa from the guestroom—and met at the coffee pot, bleary-eyed. We aren’t morning people either of us, but the early morning sky favors flight training. Winds tend to be light, and thermal turbulence from the sunbaked landscape hasn’t started to form yet. But today, it was clearly a waste of blissful sleep. A quick look out the window showed that the weather was not as forecast.
You can’t trust weathermen and psychics.
Still, we’ve learned that the weather at my house (which is 20 miles closer to the field than Lisa’s, hence the use of the guestroom on flying days) and the weather at the airport can be so different as to be in alternate universes, so properly caffeinated, we headed out.
Headed out into weather that grounded the crows that live on the airport beacon tower next to the hangers.
So instead of pre-flighting Warbler, we dumped the trash in the terminal, restocked the fridge and the snack baskets, and looked to see how many new pins had been placed in the large flight planning chart on the wall, the one that visiting pilots are invited to mark their home airports on. Then we hung out in Lisa’s hangar, mine being empty. She also has windows that look out to the East, allowing me to keep one eye on the weather while surfing the internet on my flight pad.
As the sky began to lift the wind came up.
“You know what?” said Lisa, “this isn’t happening for me today. But if you want to fly for a change, I’d be happy to come along for a ride.” She dangled Warbler’s keys in front of my face.
If there’s a pilot who can turn down an offer like that, I’ve never met him. Or her.
I had planned to do a toilet paper chase after Lisa’s practice. That’s where you fly up to around 10,000 feet, chuck a roll of (fully biodegradable) toilet paper out of the plane (over and empty area) then dive on the streamer and try to cut it with your wing as it flutters to the ground. It’s easier said than done, but every bit as much fun as it sounds. And I’ve actually succeeded at doing it.
The ceiling was starting to break up, so I chucked a roll of toilet paper in the back and up we went. It felt strange to be in Warbler’s left seat.
But as we climbed into the murky air, it was clear that this was not a day to venture up to 10,000 feet. I opted for barnstorming instead. Low and slow down on the deck we zipped between sandstone buttes, circled the ruins of abandoned ranch houses, and did lazy S-turns up and down empty dirt roads to nowhere—soaking in the view and the feel of flight.
Our RMP was acting up a bit, first high, then low. I didn’t give it much thought. Warbler has a new throttle and I figured that we didn’t have the friction lock set right yet.
I figured wrong.
“Thanks for letting me take the left seat,” I told Lisa.
“Actually,” she said, “I’m enjoying being a passenger for a change. Over here is where I fell in love with flying.”
Finally, gas running low, it was time to head back to the nest.
“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.
On base it seemed like I needed a lot more back pressure on the elevator than normal, and we also ended up landing long. But the touchdown was smooth, the moment between flying and rolling almost undetectable.
Then the noise started.
Or maybe it was there all along and we just couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. It was a flapping-type sound. I cocked my head to one side. “Do you hear that?” I asked Lisa. Then I pulled one ear cup away from my head, trying to hear it better, trying to process what it might be. As Warbler rolled down the runway, it seemed to get louder.
We needed fuel, so I headed for the far end of Eight, where Taxiway Charlie leads to the terminal and the pumps.
I should have turned tail and headed back to the hangars. Hindsight.
As we crossed One Niner, the noise was really distinctive. It sounded like a loose cowl banging in the slip stream. I decided to shut down right where we were. Nearly a mile from either the hangars or the ramp.
It never occurred to me that the engine would never restart again.
I pulled back the throttle and the mixture, then turned off the mags. With an abrupt shudder the prop snapped to attention, stopping at 12 o’clock, not making the lazy spin down we are used to. With trepidation, I slid the top of the three-piece canopy to the right, climbed out onto the wing, dropped to the ground, and came around to the front of the plane.
Everything looked normal. No loose cowl pieces.
For some reason, I reached up to pull Warbler’s prop down to the normal position.
It was stuck fast. Excalibur in the stone. My mind couldn’t process what my hands and eyes were telling me. One moment the engine is running; the next moment, after shutting it down myself, the prop is stuck fast.
I didn’t know what to do, but attempting a restart was out. I looked far to the West at the distant Lego block of the hangar. Then I looked far to the South at the distant Lego block of the terminal. This was a stupid place to shut down.
So like hippie college students who ran out of gas on the way back to the dorm, we pushed Warbler back down the taxiway, across One Nine, and back along half the length of Eight. Well, Lisa pushed. I pulled on the stuck prop, using it as a combination tow bar and steering tiller.
It was a long haul, helped by a friendly couple from Arizona headed home from AirVenture, who added some horsepower to the pushing on the last half of the journey.
The slow roll to the hangar seemed to take longer than the flight that proceeded it, but eventually we got Warbler back in his nest, where Lisa collapsed into a little puddle of DNA in the corner. Not to say she reverted to sucking her thumb, or anything—which I probably would have—but there are some things in this world you just can’t do for yourself, and a good example is calling your mechanic to discuss a very expensive-sounding repair on an airplane you really couldn’t afford in the first place, so I offered to make the call. That’s what friends are for.
I got the man on the phone and described what had happened. The prop would turn backwards as much as I wanted it to, but going in the normal direction of travel, when the blade reached 12 o’clock it stopped cold.
The mechanic said he’d never heard of anything like that before.
He had me check the oil. It was fine. Then one or two other things. Finally he said, let it cool down, then see if the prop frees up.
As we had time to kill, I starting calling various experts we knew in the Ercoupe community. The first guy thought it sounded like a broken crankshaft, about the worst thing that could happen. But I didn’t think so. Sure, if the prop were totally frozen, or totally loose. But half and half? Of course, all I know about airplane breakdowns is things that have broken down on mine. I was in uncharted territory here.
The next three guys I called had never heard of such a thing, either. Great. But all three of them instinctively felt we were seeing a bizarre manifestation of a stuck valve, a serious but not fatal mechanical issue.
Hours later, the engine cool, the prop spun freely again.
The next step? Lisa’s mechanic will have to make a house call. That will happen next weekend. And in the meantime, even with two Ercoupes, we have no plane to fly.
Damn. The ground looks so far away. “This crazy altitude is going to give me a nosebleed,” I tell Rio.
Rio, now a somewhat intolerant teen, rolls his eyes, “It’s not that bad, Dad.”
Rio’s in the left seat. I sit up straighter in my seat to see out over his wing at the airport, far, far, far below. “Break out the oxygen,” I insist.
“We don’t have oxygen, Dad. Besides, it’s only two hundred feet higher.”
Which, I know, means we’re 5,791 feet above sea level. The FAA doesn’t require pilots to use oxygen until we top 12,500 feet, and then only if we stay up there for more than half an hour. It’s at 14,000 feet that the pilot must don the mask no matter what. I’m not sure what Tessie’s service ceiling is, but I’m guessing we couldn’t get to 14,000 feet even if we filled her up with helium and lashed her to a weather balloon.
Still. The airport looks too small. In my mind I chant:I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like this new pattern altitude. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.
After I’ve been flying a landing pattern altitude of 800 feet above the ground for thirty-seven years, the powers-that-be have gone and raised it to 1,000 feet. It actually isn’t as capricious as it sounds. For years about half of the non-towered airports out there have used my beloved 800 feet, while the other half have been using 1,000 feet. As there’s no way with a quick glance at the chart to know which an airport is using, it’s led to a dangerous mix of aircraft flying at different altitudes in the pattern at some busy airports. So really, they had to standardize it for safety.
I just wish they’d chosen 800 feet.
But they didn’t. And now I have to learn to land all over again. As do Rio and Lisa, who were just beginning to master buttery smooth landings from 800 feet. Now, it seems that no matter how we change our power settings, we still come in 200 feet high.
Of course, the new pattern altitude isn’t actually law. It’s a highly recommended best practice recommended by what’s called an Advisory Circular. Out here on our own we could just keep doing whatever the hell we want to do, and no one would be the wiser.
But that wouldn’t be right.
It is for the best, I can see that. Plus when we travel we really need to be on the same page as everyone else. We—I—just need to buckle down and learn how to do this.
But, damn, I know it’s only 200 feet higher, but everything looks so much smaller, so far below. “Let’s try eighteen hundred RPM this time,” I tell Rio as we come abeam the numbers and need to start our descent
Then I add, “And tomorrow I’m bringing your grandmother’s oxygen tank.”
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” is not a command I’ll get to hear this year. The race season, for me, has ended before the first swing of the propeller. I love the sport and I was rarin’ to go, my bags were half packed for the first race. It’s even a short season, but as it turns out, well, damn it, my checkbook is even shorter.
Two seasons of racing with family in tow, neglect of work in lieu of racing, a downturn in opportunity, and a long string of expensive “mechanicals” on Race 53 have tapped me out. I’m drowning in red ink.
I did my best to ignore reality, of course, but in the end, there was no escaping it. First, I toyed with cutting out just the more distant races. Then going to just the closest ones. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that even that was out of reach.
I even considered running just one race, I probably could have afforded that, but I realized that for me, one race would be harder than none. Harder on my soul, that is. This racing, you see, is like a drug. You can never get enough. At least I can’t. One taste would just fuel the thirst for another, and another, and another.
And like any addict I’d no doubt take stupid measures to get my next “fix.”
So I packed it in. Called it off. Took my hat back out of the ring. Scratched the races I’d signed up for. I deleted the flight plans and erased the checkered race flags from the big wall chart in our flight lounge.
I’ll keep my League membership. Keep the big black and white “53” gumball on the wings and fuselage. But, for this season at least—and probably more—I’ll have to be content to be an armchair racer, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the times to be posted to see where my friends and rivals are placing, imaging where I’d be in the lineup. Seeing their championship points build on the leaderboard while hoping to catch glimpses of their trophies on Facebook.
Or maybe I won’t even have the strength for that. It might be too much like smelling the distant cookout when you are starving in the woods.
Do I have regrets? Sure. Plenty. I’m bummed we won’t be able to see how much better (if at all) the 0-200 Stroker delivers compared to Race 53’s old engine. Plus the Fac6 Category is really heating up. There’s some serious competition now at the bottom of the pack. Damn. That would have been fun.
This year, too, SARL has introduced a handicapped element to some races, leveling the playing field between production planes. Handicapping erases the element of the airplane itself. That leaves pilot skill as the only factor when it comes to winning or losing a race. In theory, in a handicapped race, Tessie could trump Mike Patey’s 400+ mile per hour turbine terror Turbulence.
Wouldn’t that be something to see?
Oh. Wait. So far, this handicapping thing is just for the production crowd and Turbulence runs in the Experimental Category. Still, it would have been interesting to see if me, or my friendly nemesis from last year, Charles Cluck of Race 35, is the “better” pilot. My mother and my wife are convinced I am, but that’s just family loyalty. That guy is a hell of a pilot. The Brits learned the hard way not to mess with men who wear kilts.
Still, I would have relished the challenge.
But I realized that if I tried to race there’d be no flying money for anything else. I’d fly ten trips in the year, most on credit, and Tess would end up being relegated to the lowly status of Hanger Queen the rest of the year. Better, I decided, to settle on racing a cloud every weekend than run a few sparse races and twiddle my thumbs most weekends.
So there won’t be a continuation of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series form GA News here at Plane Tales like I hoped, but I’m sure I can think of something to talk about.
And at least, while the ravens of racing are crying “nevermore” for me on the circuit, my blue and white bird will still continue to race around the skies.
If you’ve ever been out to a small airport, you might have noticed that there are always a lot of pilots hanging around talking to each other about flying, and you might wonder why they aren’t just out flying instead.
It’s probably because their planes are in the shop, where it seems ours spends half her time recently.
To recap: In July of last year we put in a new engine. Well, three new engines. That took until late November to straighten out.
Then we spent all of December pitching, un-pitching, and re-pitching the prop so it would work with Engine III.
January Tess developed oil incontinence; and in February the header tank sprung a leak. Into the cockpit.
March it was throttle issues. Now in April, one month before our annual (Again? Seriously?) this happened:
Yeah, the exhaust pipe isn’t supposed to move like that. Actually, it’s really not supposed to move at all. In this case our muffler has come loose, and as it flaps around, it’s torn the carb heat connections loose, too. What does all that mean?
It means at least a theoretical risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for anyone in the plane when the engine is running, and a more than theoretical risk that the carb heat system will fail when it’s needed most. And those two things together add up to mandatory maintenance.
And as I could see that the cowl would have to come off to work on this newest problem, it made more sense to me to move the dreaded annual up a few weeks than to pay for two rounds of maintenance within a month’s time.
So off to the shop I must go, and then, because I won’t be flying for a while, I guess I’ll just hang out and talk with the other pilots.
Yay! The plane is done. The day is beautiful, and this afternoon Rio and I launch on a four-day adventure. We’re flying the Route 66 Air Tour, joining a fleet of 20-30 airplanes following the historic “mother road” across New Mexico and into Arizona. We’ve just been through a major maintenance event, but I’m confident the one-hour solo flight home will serve as an adequate test flight to ensure that all is in order.
Debs, Grandma Jean, and Rio are at home assembling chicken salad sandwiches for a pre-Tour party at our airport (more about that next week) so Lisa is driving me the hour and a quarter over to Santa Fe to pick up the plane. It’s my second trip over in as many days. She’ll drop me off and head to SXU by car, where we’ll rendezvous in the late morning. My job is to prepare Tess for her adventure and to get the giant silver quasi-antique 40-cup coffee pot brewing. Once Lisa shows up, and I’ll easily beat her to Santa Rosa, we are to lay out the cookies that the city council authorized the airport manager to buy onto trays in an attractive and creative manner.
After the required small talk with my mechanics, the giant hangar doors rumble open and my chief mechanic uses his fancy-pants multi-adjustable tow bar to grab Tess’s nose gear and pull her out into the sun. It’s a perfect flying morning. Not a breath of wind. I do a quick walk around, and assured that all is as it should be, I mount the wing, step down into the cockpit and settle in for the flight.
My only real worry is the flow of fuel between Tessie’s three tanks. I plan to watch the fuel gauge on the new header tank like a hawk to ensure its being kept full by the engine-driven fuel pump as designed, and that the excess fuel is properly overflowing and draining back into the conjoined wing tanks; an invisible process that can only be monitored by proxy, using the compass-style float gauge on the floor of the plane.
If all goes well, I’ll be back to my homebase in a little over an hour. If all goes poorly I’ve got plenty of time, and fuel, to get back to Santa Fe.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I set a pen and a piece of paper on the seat next to me to copy down my taxi clearance, then plug in my headset. As it’s been a few weeks since I last flew Tess, I pull the engine start checklist from the right-hand side pocket and follow it.
Parking brake engaged. Check.
Fuel cutoff open. Check.
Master switch on. Check.
Beacon on. Check.
Crack the throttle a quarter inch. Check.
Push the mixture control full forward. Check.
Ensure the carb heat knob is full forward. Check.
Turn the ignition switch to both. Check.
Clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor. Check.
Give her two shots of prime. Check!
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. At once the new-old tachometer goes crazy, the needle jumping up and down like a seismograph station when the big one hits the San Andres.
Well, that’s not right. I fiddle with the throttle, advancing it, and retarding it to no avail.
I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal “bat switches” (so called because they look like miniature baseball bats) that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Each has a satisfactory solid movement as it’s flipped downwards to its off position. Radio: Thunk. 12-volt power: Thunk. Navigation lights: Thunk… I unlatch my seatbelt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke. Then show them the quick loop of video I shot on my iPhone of the new-old tach.
“It worked fine when we tested it,” they say.
The new-old tach is the one that was originally in the plane, but was removed when we (foolishly) purchased a modern digital engine monitor, which has been nothing but a pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned. I decided to get it to help us better protect our expensive new engine, but it added to the delays that cost us the last race season, plus I find it hard to read in flight, I miss all of my simple old gauges that told me in a half-glance the status of my engine, but most of all I miss the tach.
The engine monitor has a tach, but it’s small and hyper sensitive. It jumps around a lot even when the throttle is rock solid, and I’ve found it impossible to use to get the right power settings for landing. I tried for some time, and finally decided to just re-install the analog tach to make landing operations safer and easier.
But now, in its maiden re-installation, it has gone crazy. Tony, the number two mechanic, heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “It’s a pretty simple system. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane, pulling the canopy halves partway up to protect myself from the prop blast, then double check that the parking brake is engaged. Fuel cutoff open… master switch on… beacon on… crack the throttle a quarter inch… push the mixture control full forward… ensure the carb heat knob is full forward… turn the ignition switch to both… clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor… give her half-shot of prime for a warm engine…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button. The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion.
The tach behaves itself. Oh well, what’s one little glitch? After all, they had to pretty much disconnect everything in the plane to get the old tank out and the new one in. I give Tony a “thumbs up” and he heads back into the hangar.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I put on my headset and dial up the Santa Fe ATIS, which stands for Automated Terminal Information Service, a pre-recorded audio loop that gives pilots basic information on airport operations: The wind conditions, the active runway, and more.
I’m greeted with complete silence.
Well, not complete silence, with the engine running there’s always a dull roar in the cockpit, even with the best of headsets. But I’m not receiving any radio signals. I double check. Yeah, I’ve entered the frequency right. I poke at the intercom buttons. I fuss with the volume button on my headset. I pull out the head set plugs, and push them in again.
Well, crud. I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal bat switches that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Radio, 12 volt, Navigation lights, Thunk… thunk… thunk… I unlatch my seat belt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. Again. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke.
It’s not quite so funny this time.
Once again Tony heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Another short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “I think the plug was loose. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane. No need to start the plane to test this problem. I flip the master switch on, then the radio control switch. I hold the headset up to one ear and hear, “Santa Fe information Papa, time sixteen forty five Zulu…”
I nod to Tony and give him a thumbs up again.
“Now don’t be coming back here again,” Tony teases me.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight.
Parking brake engaged, fuel cutoff open, turn the master switch, flip on the beacon, crack the throttle a quarter inch, push the mixture control full forward, ensure the carb heat knob is full forward, turn the ignition switch to both, clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor, give her a half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Time to get this party started!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi, then I engage my Cloudahoy App to record the flight and start to taxi. I notice the GPS link in the App hasn’t turned green yet. I also notice that on my Garmin Pilot Navigation system I’m not moving. I slow down and look at my transponder.
It says “MSG.”
That can’t be good. I call ground control and ask for permission to return to the ramp.
I pull back up in front of my mechanic’s hangar and I shut the engine down. I close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the bat switches. Thunk… thunk… thunk… Unlatch seat belt, slide shoulder out and unbutton canopy. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in.
“Seriously?” they ask me.
I text Lisa: Third time, assuredly, will be the charm. Keep driving.
This one is more complicated. The coaxial cable has pulled out of its plug. My guys don’t have the magic tool needed to fix it. I text home to tell Rio to search the flight lounge cabinets for our old dash-top GPS unit. I’m not going to let a little thing like no navigation system spoil our adventure. In the meantime, my guys call the avionics shop on the other side of the field, who agree to send someone right over.
I pass the time in my mechanic’s office, in out of the cold late morning air, surfing eBay on my iPad. After what seems like forever, once again, Tess is pronounced ready for flight.
Parking brake, fuel cutoff, master, beacon, throttle, mixture, carb heat, ignition, fuel warning, give her half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Third time is the charm!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi. Everything is working fine. The new-old tach is behaving, I can hear and talk on the radio, and my nav system is alive. I taxi back toward the runway again, scanning the instrument panel for anything out of the ordinary.
Everything looks good. I do my run up and tell the tower I’m ready to rock and roll. They advise me a larger plane is on long final, but the tower controller clears me for takeoff, adding, “Do not hesitate, early turnout approved.” Hell yeah, I’ve just been given permission to have some fun.
I throttle up to full power as I turn onto the runway, foot never touching the brake. Tess surges forward, she has fuel to get home and nothing else onboard. As she leaps into the air I bank left, and barely higher than the tower, fly up over the south ramp, studying the planes parked in neat rows.
It’s good to be back in the air, even if it’s a few hours later than I expected. It’s surprisingly calm air, the engine sounds strong and smooth, and all the repairs seem to be holding. I reach up to the engine monitor and scroll to the secondary screen. Amps and volts good. I scroll to the fuel computer. It shows me that I have fuel enough to reach Hawaii.
That seems improbable.
I check the fuel flow. The gauge is reporting one gallon per hour, not our usual five and a half. I know this is wrong. But what could be causing it? I lift one earphone clear of my head. A blast of sound assaults me. Nothing wrong with the engine. If I were venting fuel above the sensor, the engine would be starved. I look at the fuel gauge on the floor. It’s steady. The float gauge in the new header tank is riding high. Like most of the rest of the repairs today, it must be a wire not hooked up right.
Do I go on or go back? A deep sigh. I’m only ten miles out; I’m going to have to take the plane back to the mechanics at some point anyway. It might as well be now. I bank into a right-hand 180 and dial my radio back to the Santa Fe tower to tell them I’m coming back.
I land, taxi back to my mechanics and park right in front of their hangar doors. Engine shut down. Fuel valve. Bat switches. Seat belt. Shoulder belt. Canopy. Up and out.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in. They guys aren’t happy to see me.
“Each time you come back it takes longer to fix,” sighs Tony. I tell him the problem and he gathers his tools and his flashlight.
I text Lisa: Wouldn’t you know it? More trouble. Keep driving.
Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.
Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.
This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.
I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.
But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.
I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.
I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.
The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.
I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?
I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.
I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.
At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.
It was still windy.
I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.
I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.
Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.
Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.
It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.
When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.
Damn. What’s this going to cost me?
Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?
Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?
Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.
We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.
Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.
I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.
He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.
One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.
Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.
Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.
When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.
As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.
Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.
Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.
When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.
Remember last week when I told you that, as always with airplanes, there was a problem? Well, at risk of turning Plane Tales into the aviation version of Bob Vila’s This Old House TV series, today I have yet another Plane Problem tale.
It all started when we bought the airplane. No really, today’s feature attraction is one I’ve known about, and have been putting off, since 2013.
But before we can dig into the latest money-eater, for background you need to know that Tessie has three fuel tanks. There’s one in each wing, which is where airplane gas tanks are normally found. Somewhat uniquely, Tess’s are interconnected with no fuel selector, making the pair act like one large gas tank. Even more uniquely, there’s a fuselage tank in the nose of the plane between the engine and the instrument panel. This makes some people nervous, with all that gas in their laps, but in truth, all airplanes are just flying gasoline bombs anyway, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I regard my fuselage tank as a great safety feature due to the way the entire fuel system is designed.
Here’s the deal: An engine-driven fuel pump draws gas up from the conjoined wing tanks and into the nose tank, which I generally call a “header” tank. Gas is then gravity-fed down to the carburetor. The fuel pump draws more gas than the engine uses, and the header tank has an overflow tube that leads back down to the wing tanks again.
Think of it like one of those chocolate fountains you see at weddings.
What makes this arrangement safe, or safer than virtually any other low wing airplane, is the fact that the engine doesn’t need the fuel pump to run. If the fuel pump conks out, the header tank can keep the engine running for an hour. In other low wing planes, if the fuel pump kicks the bucket, the engine shuts down (which is why many planes have backup fuel pumps, but I’m a great believer in catastrophic chains of failure).
So speaking of gas, pretty much since day one—or maybe it was day two—there’s been a slight odor of gas in Tess’s cockpit. My mechanics checked all the usual suspects, looking at the priming system, checking the fuel cutoffs, and making sure all the various connectors were well connected.
All was well.
Looking closer, in every nook and cranny, they finally discovered the cause: An itsy bitsy fuel seep. The header tank was oozing fuel. As pulling out the header tank pretty much entails gutting the interior of the airplane to remove it (or so we all thought at the time), which would take a ton of time, and therefore cost me a ton of money, my mechanics had little trouble convincing me to put this off. Sure, when you first opened the canopy when the plane had been sitting for a while, there’d be a whiff of fuel, but it quickly dissipated and wasn’t an issue.
Once we got Tess back from her months-looooong engine misadventures, I noticed that the fuel smell was worse. Much worse. When opening the canopy, a nauseating wave of fuel fumes poured forth. On our return flight from Texas on our engine break-in flight, I got a pounding headache from the fumes. When I took her in for her new engine’s first oil change, at ten flight hours, I insisted that my mechanics investigate.
Nothing new was amiss.
Meanwhile, the smell was now so strong I wondered if gas were dripping out and soaking into the carpet. My guys suggested I cover the floor with white paper between flights to see if the paper was stained when I came back.
Still, I knew the fumes had to be coming from that damn tank, somehow. And that, all evidence to the contrary, things were getting worse. I also kicked myself for not insisting that the tank be pulled and rebuilt during the long downtime of the engine rebuild. I vowed to get it taken care of once and for all at our next annual, which due to all the work that’s been done, has now been reset to the month of May.
That was at the end of November. Just the other day I was back again at my maintenance base in Santa Fe for the second oil change on the new engine. That’s when one of my guys said, “Come over here, I want you to see something.”
It’s never a good thing when an airplane mechanic wants you to see something.
Like a condemned man being led to gallows, I followed him around Tess’s nose to the pilot side. The mechanic pulled out a black flashlight and played a bright beam on the firewall. A long blue stain wandered down the slick metal.
Blue… Blue is the color of the only remaining aviation fuel in the U.S., called 100 low lead, or sometimes 100LL. Why is it blue, other than the fact that its cost per gallon gives pilots the Blues? Well, back in the day when aviation was healthier, there were many kinds of airplane gas. There was 80 octane, the 100 octane, and even a 130 octane. Various engines ran better on one or the other, and with that many gasolines available, there was always the risk that some fool line boy would put the wrong juice in your tanks with possibly tragic results. Thus, each kind of gas had its own color so you could tell if you had the right or wrong go-juice in your bird’s tanks. Eighty was red, 130 was green, and the 100 was blue.
The blue stain was telling us that the seep was no longer a seep. It was a… Well, I don’t know what to call something that’s more than a seep but less than a trickle. But it wasn’t a good sign.
Next the mechanic crawled under the dash to look at the bottom of the header tank from inside. This isn’t an easy thing to do in an Ercoupe. He lay on his back on the seat, head under the dash, legs and feet dangling out the window.
“Can some one get me my phone?” his disembodied voice floated out of the cockpit.
Odd time to choose to make a phone call, I thought, but I fetched his phone from his workbench.
It turns out he wanted to take a photo. Massive stretches of blue were staining the underside of the tank. OK, well, massive is an exaggeration. There were two or three stains the size of postage stamps. But they weren’t there a month ago.
But that wasn’t half of it. Not by far.
Along the base of the tank, where it rests on a bracket on the inside of the firewall, was liquid gasoline. I guess my seep just became a spring. In just a hair over a month. The tank job couldn’t be put off any longer.
I asked my senior mechanic if the outfit that rebuilt our wing tank this spring also rebuilt header tanks. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but given how hard it’s going to be to get to, maybe you should consider a new one.” Then he asked if I happened to know if Univair sold new ones.
Univair, a company in Colorado, should really be called Uni-savior. They hold the Type Certificate for the Ercoupe, and although they’ve never made a single airplane, they continue to make almost every part and piece of the planes. This is why Ercoupe owners, unlike owners of other classic planes of yesteryear, don’t need to own three planes to keep one flying: Virtually every replacement part we could need can be on a UPS truck within 24 hours.
Because while Univair can make anything you need, not everything you need is always in stock. Still, better to wait six weeks than spend a lifetime searching airplane junkyards.
Standing in my mechanic’s hanger next to Tess I could almost hear the gas dripping onto the floor. Which it wasn’t. Other than in my writer’s imagination. I pulled out my phone and checked Univair’s website. There it was, the header tank, all $2,180.87 of it. Seriously? Eighty-seven cents? Why not just round it up to twenty-two hundred bucks?
I ordered it.
Then I flew my leaky plane south to the prop shop, wondering if I’d ever get away from fixing this plane and back to just, you know, flying it. So… did I choose 47 or 48 at the prop shop? It turns out it can be pitched to 47.5. Who knew?
With that problem solved, I set about working my contacts for advice on how to pull the header tank out of the plane without completely disemboweling the cockpit, as it turns out that neither of my mechanics had ever done it. Luckily, for Tess’s version of her breed, it’s not too bad a procedure after all. The yokes come out. Various cables get disconnected, then the tank is disconnected and pretty much drops straight onto the floor, where it can be pulled out of the plane. At first glance my guys thought that the entire instrument panel and all its toys would need to be removed, but that’s not necessary. So that’s good.
Well, other than the timing, of course.
Over dinner and lots of wine at the end of the very long day, I was filling the family in on the latest debacle. When I finished, I wrapped up with a hopeful thought from one of my mechanics: At this point we’ve replaced or refurbished virtually every system on the airplane. It’s more of a 2018 Ercoupe than a 1947 Ercoupe. With a strong new power plant on the front and all major systems in ship-shape order, there would be nothing but routine maintenance to worry about going forward.
My mother wasn’t buying that. Not for a second. “I’m sure something else will break down next,” she snorted.
Maybe so. But I hope not. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be a long time before the next episode of This Old Airplane airs on the Plane Tales Network.