Another return

It’s a bit hazy, but other than that, I have no complaints about the sky. If there are any clouds out there, they’re hiding behind the distant horizon. The air is delightfully still: Hardly a breath of wind stirs the ground. I’m glad. I don’t want the sky gods messing with today’s mission.

It’s too important.

Rio and I are comfortably crammed into Tessie’s cockpit, a space never intended for the width of two fully-grown modern men. If I could change one thing about the Ercoupe it would be more shoulder room and more leg room, which I guess is actually two things. But I’ve adapted to both shortages, and have learned to live with the cozy cockpit. Our shoulders stuck together as if velcro’d into a single unit, I reach forward to slide the throttle up. The EGT’s advance, the tach springs alive, and Tess starts to roll. I can feel pressure building in the elevator, the yoke becoming heavier. I push it forward to keep Tess glued to the runway until I’m ready for her to fly.

Faster and faster we go, runway lights now zipping past like scared rabbits running for cover. The white needle of the airspeed indictor is in the green arc. I ease back on the yoke and Tess’s nose lifts, then her mains break with the ground, our shadow falling away beneath us. And, after a long hiatus, Rio is in the air again.

He hasn’t flown in 114 days. First, just shy of his First Solo, he had a chain of lessons cancelled one right after the other: Weather, instructor down with the flu, maintenance issues on the rental plane, and on it went. Every Monday he’d get out his sacrificial shirt, only to have to put it away again for the next week. Then Rio himself was down for maintenance for a couple weeks, having his wisdom teeth—all four of them—removed. He was just about to go back into the air again in early April, when tragedy struck: His CFI, a wonderful (if slightly crusty) seventy-two-year-old instructor named Larry, was killed in a plane crash on a training flight. I haven’t written about how his loss affected my families, both the family under my roof, and my airport family. My pen is not up to the task. All I’ve been able to manage so far is the title,The Windsock was at Half Mast,which popped into my head at his memorial service at the airport: A crowded affair held in a large hangar where his beloved black-and-white Citabria, now an orphan, stood watch over a table of photos of Larry, arranged around his favorite oil-stained baseball cap.

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Lisa, who flew with him right before the crash, and is the last person on the planet to see Larry alive, wore her grief on her sleeve, but Rio—who’s more stoic to start with—didn’t talk much about what he was feeling. I didn’t push, but I worried. It was his first loss as a young adult of someone he was close to.

Lisa figured Larry wouldn’t want her to quit, and with grim determination climbed back into the cockpit to continue her training, only to be cut off at the knees by the labyrinth of regulation that surrounds our industry. You see, she had only one more flight with Larry before the “checkride” for her license. But with Larry Flying West, she’d have to find a new instructor to sign her off for the test. A new instructor who would first need to learn about Warbler’s capabilities and oddities, and then confirm that she could perform all the skills necessarily to pass her checkride.

But there’s more. Her solo endorsement, the logbook page that allowed her to practice in her own plane by herself, expired. She was so close to finishing, Larry had seen no reason to update it. So now, if I’m not around to help, all she can do is sit in the cockpit and make airplane noises.

And that’s not the end of Lisa’s troubles. Following the crash, the examiner who was to administer her test announced he’d no longer offer checkrides for the Light Sport ticket. With no way to practice, no one to instruct her, and no one to give her the test for her license, Lisa has a lot stacked up against her, and all of this coming just when she was within spitting distance of completing her training and joining the family of licensed pilots.

Meanwhile, with the school closed down to deal with the loss, and Tess down for maintenance, Rio had no plane to fly. And so the days ticked by with Rio’s feet on the ground. And days turned into weeks, weeks into months.

Finally, with Tess back in service, and a pair of long cross countries planned to the last of the spring SARL races, I talked to Rio about his role in the flights, to which he responded, “I don’t even know if I can fly anymore.”

I assured him that it would take no time at all to knock the rust off.

He gave me a surprisingly cold look for someone with warm brown eyes. Then he told me he wasn’t worried about rust. He told me didn’t know if—once back in a small plane—he’d “completely fall apart” emotionally, or not. A few days later I overhead him telling his grandmother that “many pilots” never flew again after something like this happened.

There was only one way to find out. Sooner or later, he’d have to go up into the sky, face his grief, and find out if it was overpowering, or not. He agreed it was time. We drafted a set of ground rules. I’d be left seat, handle the take off, and slowly climb to 7,000 feet. After that he’d take the controls. If at any point, he was uncomfortable, we’d immediately return to the airport.

I didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen next if that turned out to be the case. I tipped-toed around my fears, never letting them take full shape.

Passing through 5,500, just off the end of Runway 19, I turn down the Pecos Canyon, following the river below. Power strong. Tach below the red. Huh, cylinder number two is running a little on the warm side. Oil pressure and temperature good. We’re climbing sedately at 250 feet per minute. I cast a sideways glance at my copilot. Rio’s face is impassive. Carved in marble. I never know what that kid is thinking.

Passing through 6,000 feet, we continue in companionable silence. The air is a smooth as churned butter. I know this because Debbie bought Rio and I a small hand-cranked butter churn for Christmas.

Passing through 6,500 feet, I tweak the trim to lower Tess’s nose a hair, and side the throttle back to her cruise setting.

Leveling off at 7,000 feet I say, “You have the plane,” letting go of the yoke and holding both my hands up the same way I would if a robber jumped out of the bushes with a gun, demanding my wallet.

“I have the plane,” Rio responds, the first words he’s spoken since he buckled his seat belt and secured his shoulder harness before I started Tess’s engine.

We continue flying straight and level, Rio’s face impassive. Still marble.

For a long time, we drone on through the sky, flying south. Then, ever so gently, he turns the plane to the right. To a west bound course. And after yet more time, another turn. Left this time. Shallow. A three-sixty. Still his face is impassive. I don’t know what’s going on inside his soul, but there’s nothing wrong with his flying. I lean back, stop worrying about the plane, try not to worry about Rio, and focus on enjoying the view.

Rio continues a series of gentle, shallow turns, with long periods of flying straight and level in between them. He’s flying less aggressively than he used to, but he’s precise. And he’s showing no signs of wanting to head back. We’ve been up for over an hour now, and we’re far to the southeast of the field. Our wing tanks just dipped below one-eighth, and I begin to worry about our fuel supply.

But without my saying anything, Rio reaches up to the FlightPad, places his thumb and index finger on the touch screen, then spreads them apart, zooming the field of view outward. He nods his head to himself and gently banks Tess back to the northwest, toward home.

Above the field he gives the plane back to me. We’d agreed in advance that landing practice can wait for another day. I fly the pattern, touch down, taxi to the fuel pump, and shut down. We pull our headsets off, slide the doors down into the belly of the plane, and sit for a moment.

“How did you feel?” I ask.

“OK,” he says.

I don’t know what to say next, and finally decide on, “Well, that’s good. Did you enjoy they flight?”

Rio thinks for a moment, then says, “Surprisingly, yes.”

Welcome back. My son: Civis Aerius Sum, still a citizen of the air.

 

Shitty shitty shimmy

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

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

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Image: Amazon.com

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

It was in my plane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Weighty options

I let go of the yoke. One heart beat… Two heart beats…

The horizon rises in the windshield. Slowly at first, then faster. Up. Up. Up. Faster and faster still. The whisper of the wind turns into a roar. Then a howl. Twin tails rising high into the air, Tess nose-dives toward the earth like a Stuka dive bomber.

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The wind resistance tugs at the prop, red-lining the tachometer.  The vertical speed indictor shows 800 feet per minute down… 900 feet per minute… 1,000 feet… 1,200… The airspeed indictor snaps to the yellow line. I lose my nerve. My hand back on the yoke, I pull back. Gently. Firmly. The horizon, now above my head, slowly slides across the roof of the canopy, down the windshield, below the nose. We are straight and level again.

I turn to Lisa, who’s sitting calmly in the right seat, pencil poised over her knee board. “Well,” I say, “that wasn’t encouraging.” Clearly the new trim is not working right.

So much for a trouble-free return to service.

We return to the field, land, and my mechanics make an adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.

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We return to the field a second time, land, and my mechanics make another adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.

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On the third try, we’ve run out of trim. It’s deployed 45 degrees into the slipstream, and still the elevator can’t hold the plane in level hands-off flight. Something is seriously amiss. Tessie has become mysteriously nose-heavy. Like our engine mystery of two summers ago, there’s no satisfactory and satisfying answer as to why this is so. But cause aside, we need a solution. And one solution to a nose-heavy airplane is to simply add some weight to the other end. And as the tail is much farther behind the center of gravity—that magic balancing point an aircraft in flight rests on and rotates around—than the nose is forward of the center of gravity, a little weight should go a long way.

Or so we thought.

Funny how many of the things we think  should work simply don’t with this stubborn little airplane.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the testing plan. Or with the details of the flights, one after another, after another, after another, after another. For most of a day. But we started by securing one-pound bags of “Sea Pearls” in Tessie’s tail. The bags are designed for scuba diver belts. They are small, flat, full of tiny lead shot, and surprisingly heavy for their size.

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Based on the weight and balance sheets, it shouldn’t have taken too many bags to get Tessie to fly right. The weights were placed 180 inches behind Tess’s center of gravity. One hundred and eighty inches is a loooooong lever with which to raise the nose. Or so we all thought.

But it was not the case. Seventy-five dollars’ worth of Sea Pearls later, I still had a plane the Luftwaffe would have been proud to deploy. With the maximum amount of added weight that my maintenance team felt was safe, we still couldn’t fly level. Oh, sure. It was better. The dives were slower. Less aggressive with each bag of Sea Pearls. But anything like level flight with neutral trim eluded us.

It was time for Plan B. Which was four washers installed along the bolts that secure Tess’s tail to her fuselage. Yep. We shimmed her tail. Then I went up to test fly.

No more Stuka.

But were the weights still needed? There was only one way to find out. Take some out, test fly, and see how many, if any, were needed with the shimming of the tail feathers. Again, I won’t bore you with the details of the flights. One after another, after another, after…

But in end, there were no Sea Pearls in Tessie’s tail and she flew true.

In fact, she’s never flown better.

Now, if we can just figure out why her brand-new attitude indictor is spinning like a top, and why her compass points the wrong way…