Text (1) if you are alive; text (2) if you are dead

I open my logbook. A moth flies out. Well, at least someoneis flying.

Actually, thanks to my buddy Lisa losing her mind and buying an airplane, I’ve been in the air almost every week—except for those three weeks when Warbler was broken down. But flying with Lisa nowadays isn’t reallyflying. Her skill level has crossed that magic plateau every pilot-in-training experiences: One hour it looks hopeless, the next hour it all comes together, and she’s been flying like an ol’ pro ever since.

So my flying with Lisa isn’t so much flying, as riding in an airplane enjoying the view. But, still, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning. And the way the FAA regs are written, I still get to log the time. But what I’m lacking is some logging of flight in my soul, and there’s only one plane to do that in: Tessie.

But it’s been a bad year for poor Tess. We had that five-month engine rebuild debacle; then the prop repitch, re-repitch, re-re-repitch; then the weird oil leaks; then the leaky header tank; then the radio problems; then the stuck controls; then the broken exhaust; then the wing gas tank rebuild; then the problems with the elevator adjustment; and… Did I leave anything out? Probably. I try not to think about these things too much, and the aviation maintenance suicide prevention hot line at the NFFAis really getting tired of my calls.

After coming out of a six-week-long annual in June, Tess immediately began to overheat. Badly. There was much back and forth about possible causes, and in the end, I made the decision to let a different maintenance team take a crack at the issue. Mere days out of her annual I delivered Tess to a field on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico and then waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Of course, I’m not very good at waiting. And it’s not like I just sat idlily by. I called and emailed. And always there was an excuse for the delay. And always a promise of a new date. Finally, at the two month point the Eastern Planes guys admitted they had not even startedthe promised work.

I blew a gasket, got in a car (with wife and child in tow to bring the car back home), and went to go pick up the damned airplane. When I got there and tried to start Tess, she had no oil pressure. They pulled the top plugs and the oil filter and had me swing the prop with the mags off, using the starter. This should have pumped oil. It didn’t. It looked like the oil pump, hidden deep down inside the engine case, had died.

It was less than sixty hours old.

I’m sure you can imagine my state of mind.

As a last-ditch effort, they plugged the breather tube and applied compressed air to the oil system and we tried again. We struck oil. It was a gusher. They decided it was something called an “air lock” somewhere in the oil system, or maybe some debris. I don’t know about that, but afterward my mystery overheating disappeared.

I flew Tess home without incident. Then I flew her hard the next day, just trying to overheat her. She was as good as new. The old Tessie was back, and both she and I were thirsty for adventure.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Because that very same afternoon—as I sat in the back seat of Deb’s Jeep as the nuclear family drove to Albuquerque to fetch Grandma Jean, who was flying home commercially after a visit to sister number two and family in Colorado—I was checking my email. There was a ton of chatter on the Sport Air Racing League discussion board about the upcoming weekend’s race. I guess I must have been grumbling out loud about missing out on the action because Deb turned her head and said: “Go.”

I grumbled there wasn’t time. I’d have to leave in 12 hours.

“Go,” said Debbie.

I’d have to do laundry, and pack, and flight plan, and…

“Go, already,” said Debbie.

So I did. After crazy-fast late-night prep, Lisa and I are now south of Santa Fe with five hundred miles to go, enjoying a smooth early morning ride, and watching the temperature gauges like hawks, when I get a text on my Apple watch.

It says: “Are you dead?”

Well, that wasn’t quite what it said. It really said: “Leidos Flt Svc Advisory–N3967H–TRACK LOST@241252–If not in distress–Contact Flt Svcs.”

Which is pretty much the same thing as, “Are you dead?”

IMG_0530

But it’s not the type of text you expect to get in an airplane. At least I didn’t expect it, nor had I ever seen anything like it before. Now, for quick background on this first-time-for-me text, you need to know that after writing an article on flight plans, I got inspired and started using the modern and super-easy flight plan filing system where everything is done by computer and smart phone, a methodology which ideally suits my antisocial personality (and least when it comes to talking to authority). And a totally new-for-me option is to link my flight plan and my Spot GPS tracker. If the tracker stops tracking—i.e. moving—then rescue efforts are started right away, rather than waiting until after you’re overdue and presumed missing en route.

Apparently, our tracker had stopped tracking.

We dug the tracker out of the back, and sure enough, it had lost the signal. We re-booted it. No joy. The batteries were too low. To flight service we were flying along just fine one minute, and the next we had vanished. Needless to say, we needed to check in and let them know notto launch search and rescue.

But I’ve gotten so used to dealing with flight service via text message, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to contact them using something as old fashioned as a radio. I mean, seriously, I can open and close my flight plans by texting single letters and numbers to them. Why on earth couldn’t they have just texted: TRACK LOST, text (1) if you are OK, text (2) if you need help?

But that wasn’t an option. In my mind’s eye I could see the slide in my Rusty Pilots PowerPoint presentation that shows the universal frequency for flight service. But my mind’s eye apparently needs bifocals; as I couldn’t focus on the long—for me—unused frequency.

“You have the plane,” I told Lisa.

She quickly grabbed the controls, “I have the plane.”

I whipped out my phone (thankfully we were near civilization and I had three bars). I used Google to look up the frequency for Flight Service:122.2. You’d think I could remember a number like that) and proceeded to make my usual fool of myself on the radio. “Uh… hello? Flight service, are you there? Yes, we’re fine. Umm.. thanks for asking. How are you? Oh, right, I’m the pane you’re worried about. I got your text. We’re not dead. It’s just the battery that went dead. Don’t call out the guard or anything. Err…Thanks again. Uh… have a nice day.”

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but the exchange felt awkward to me, and less professional than I envision myself. Still, they were happy to know we were still in the air, and wished us a good flight.

And the rest of it was. The plane behaved. The weather behaved. Not only were we alive, but I felt alive again.

 

Tit for Tat

OK… so this one monitors EGT and CHT. Those stand for Exhaust Gas Temperature and Cylinder Head Temperature. It can also do Fuel Flow. That sounds cool. And of course, Oil Pressure, Oil Temperature, and… TIT?

What on earth is TIT?

I did a quick internet search on TITs, and I’m sure you can guess what happened. Yes. Thousands of pictures of female… well… you know whats.

t for t

Adding “airplane” didn’t help, believe it or not. Now I just had thousands of pictures of female you-know whats being flashed in airplanes of every sort imaginable.

Clearly, a TIT monitor isn’t something we need onboard our plane.

But the Horsepower Meter and Amp Meter sound useful. Yep, if you haven’t guessed, I’m trying to choose an engine monitor for Tessie. Her old engine showed signs of heat damage when one of its cylinders failed, but I’m 100% sure my engine instruments never showed me running hot. Of course, my old instruments only monitored one of the four cylinders as a proxy for the entire engine. As the “new” engine (technically a major overhaul that mixes new and old parts) is on target to cost more than the airplane itself did in the first place, I’m determined to protect my investment with some sort of system that will let me keep an eye on all four cylinders. Hence the engine monitor search.

For background, the Federal Aviation Administration requires certain instruments to be onboard. These are called Primary instruments. In addition, many planes provide instruments above and beyond the required minimums, and these extra goodies are called either secondary or non-primary, depending on whom you are talking to. Of course, originally, all the instruments were round dials with needles. Like everything else in the world, colorful digital screens have taken over.

Some of these digital wonders are certified to function as primaries, and a single box can replace a panel full of dials—at least in most airplanes. But I can’t find a single unit approved for the Ercoupe, and that means I need to keep my old watch-one-cylinder dials while the fancy-pants high-tech wonder that can track everything the engine is doing will only have the status of a secondary system.

Anyway, I finally got it down to three choices, which made it remarkably like an expensive version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One is too big. One is hard to read. And one, I decide, is juuuuuuust right.

And it’s the one with the mysterious TIT meter.

I emailed my mechanic. It turns out that, as I suspected, the machine doesn’t monitor actual, well, you know whats. It turns out that it measures Turbine Inlet Temperature on turbocharged engines.

And we don’t have TITs like that.

 

Book a flight for this great read

Normally, coming of age tales make me want to barf. Partly because I was born old, or so says my mother, (so I never needed to come of age), and partly because they tend to be sappy-sentimental-trash.

That’s why Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage sat in the tower of need-to-read books by my bedside for a good half-year or more before I cracked it open. I bought the story of two brothers flying a Piper Cub coast-to-coast in the 60’s on a whim after reading that their very cub had been found and restored. I’m impulsive that way.

cover FOP

But once I finally started reading it, I found I couldn’t put it down, and I wished I hadn’t put it off so long.

Why? Well, for one thing it’s superbly well-written. And for another, it’s a great story from a great age in general aviation. The Buck boys made the 1966 flight from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub that didn’t even have a radio. But everywhere they went there were airports, fuel, and “geezers” who gave them tips on flying the local area.

It was wonderful, but it saddened me, too, as I realized how much has changed since then. How much the vibrancy of general aviation has faded. The three airports closest to my home base are open, but empty. They don’t sell fuel. No one is around when you land. Some of them feel as eerie as ghost towns.

The book traces the weeklong adventures of pilot in command Kern Buck—age 16 at the time—and the author, his younger brother. The boys became an overnight media sensation during the trek, but then like so many aviation sensations, they disappeared from collective memory as quickly as they appeared. It wasn’t until three decades later that Rinker Buck wrote the story of the flight. I’m astounded at his ability to remember so much from so long ago. He captures a time a place lost to us while recounting how the flight created a lifetime bond between him and his older brother, and helped them both navigate their complex relationship with their demanding father—an old barnstormer who taught both boys to fly.

The book carried me aloft and along in their noisy, drafty, vibrating cub; and the story kept me engaged. Night after night I stole some solo time after dinner to read a few pages, then later selected an alternate bedtime to fly deeper into the 351-page volume. As I came towards the end of the book, a sense of sadness overcame me, I didn’t want it to end. And last night, when I closed the cover after reading the last page, a wave of depression came over me.

Now what on earth will I do with my free time?

A book that good is a rare treat indeed. So “book” a flight with Flight of Passage. You won’t regret the trip.

A Plane case of mistaken identity

Lisa sent me an email with a couple of images today. They looked like close-ups of a Bell 47—the iconic M*A*S*H chopper—on a helipad. A bizarre tinge of unjustified jealously tickled forehead and worked its way down to my stomach. Had she started hanging out at airports without me?

But when I looked closer, I was surprised to see her son Adrian sitting at the controls!

Image 1

Abandoned by Adrian, too? Was he two-timing the Plane Tales Crew with helicopter people for his scientific missions? Rather than being happy for my friends, I felt oddly put out, left out, and just basically miffed.

I grumpily scrolled down to the second helicopter picture to see a second man was in the cockpit with Adrian. He looked somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I don’t know too many helicopter guys. Hmmmm…. Graying hair, beard, glasses, something about that nose… With a shock I realized it was a picture of me!

Image

What am I doing in a helicopter? Wait. That can’t be…

Checklist time:

  • Am I losing my mind?
  • Am I losing my memory?
  • Am I awake right now?

I’m pretty sure I’m not losing my mind, although they say you’re the last to know if you are. I can remember flying events pretty well, and I’m quite sure I’ve only flown a helicopter once, and that was back in 1984. So I must be dreaming.

Yes. That must be it. One of those funky dreams that seem real. A funky dream where someone sends you pictures of events that never happened. I pinched myself to prove the point.

OUCH!!

Oh. OK. So I’m awake. Ohhhhh…. I know. It’s a joke. It’s one of those Photoshop images like the one of the shark attacking the helicopter that makes its way around the internet, fooling gullible people.

I zoomed in on the second image, looking for telltale signs that my buddy had nearly pulled a fast one over on me, when I got a third shock: The rotor blades weren’t rotor blades. They were Adrian’s critter-tracking antenna. And the helicopter wasn’t a helicopter at all, it was the Plane Tales Plane! It was Tessie!

Up close and personal, from the front and a hair toward her right wing, with her cowl and wings cropped out, her windscreen and canopy look just like a chopper!

Wow! How could I not recognize the family plane?!

Time to run the Checklist again:

  • Am I losing my mind?
  • Am I losing my memory?
  • Am I awake right now?