A first date with another Jenny

Last time, on Plane Tales, I told you about a Curtiss Jenny that I’ve been seeing on the side for many years. A plane always—literally—just out of my reach. Today I want to tell you about another Jenny. One I was actually able to touch.

But first a word from our sponsor, the History Channel. Oh. Wait. We don’t have a sponsor here at Plane Tales, much less the History Channel. Oh well, here we go with the Cliff Notes history of the Curtiss Jenny, totally on the house.

The Jenny, technically the Curtiss JN-4 (the lettering on the planes used a kindergarten open-topped 4 that resembled a “y,” hence the origin of the nickname), was the primary training aircraft for US Army Air Corps prior to, and during, World War I. Did you know we went to war with only 35 military pilots? By the armistice, less than two years years after we entered the fray, that number had swelled to over 10,000—and ninety-five percent of those pilots trained in Jennies.

While that’s a remarkable feat, I think it was the second chapter of Jenny’s life that made us all fall in love with her. And for that, ironically, we also have the war to thank.

During World War I, the U.S. government spent more time building up troop strength in both men and materials than it did actually fighting—not to diss the sacrifice of my grandfather and thousands of other fighting men who saw ten lifetimes worth of combat. Still, in this short time more than six thousand Jenny trainers were built. But as soon as the war ended, the government pulled the plug on the military build up, and that growth came to a screeching halt. Then it reversed as the military was rapidly downsized. In the years following the war, the civilian airplane market was flooded with military surplus Jennies as the government sold off unneeded assets. So many more planes were built than needed, that some of the surplus Jennies were still unassembled in their shipping crates when they were sold. While common aviation lore has it that a brand-spanking-new Jenny with a spare engine could be had for as little as $250 right after the war, that’s a myth, although most of them sold for half the eight-grand each that the government paid for them a short time before.

Who bought them?

Hell raising unemployed ex-army pilots. Yeah. The era of the barnstormer was born from military surplus. Now the plane that taught most pilots to fly became the first airplane most Americans got to see in the flesh, as small bands of gypsy pilots roamed the heartland selling rides and preforming stunts.

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Image by Suchiu Art, I’ve already ordered a copy for my office wall!

But as aviation grew up, the government lost its tolerance for this wild west of the air. The powers that be wanted to make aviation respectable, and the hell raisers with their wing walking and loop the loops were in the way. They had to go, as far as the government was concerned, and to get rid of them, the bureaucrats broke out their usual weapon: Paper. Simply put, the government regulated the barnstormers clean out of business in 1927 with new pilot license, maintenance, and airworthiness requirements. The Jennies weren’t able to meet the new airworthiness guidelines, and by 1930 it was illegal to fly one in most parts of the United States. In fact, the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce sent letters to Jenny owners demanding that they be destroyed. Most were.

But not all. Ironically it was because of this barnstormer-killing set of regulations that my wish to touch a Jenny finally came true. And with that rather long introduction, we come to today’s Plane Tale…

 

It started with an invitation. Lupita Wisener, who races with me in SARL, pulled me aside at the Mark Hardin Air Race. The public-use, privately owned airport that her husband’s family has run for generations was about to mark an important milestone: The 100th Anniversary of the first airplane to land there, which was a Curtiss Jenny. Would I like to visit? It might be an interesting article, she hinted.

She was right. It did sound like an interesting article. She told me a bit more about the strip, 3F9, Wisener Field in tiny Mineola, Texas, a mere 45 miles on east of where we were standing. They had a concrete strip, a grass strip, an historic airmail beacon, a museum, and by the way, we have an authentic barnstorming Jenny. It flew in the family’s Royal Flying Circus that brothers Henry and Bryce Wisener formed in 1926. I pictured “my” Jenny, hanging just out of reach above me at Denver International.

I was sold.

Even though it was only a hop and a skip in Tessie, we just didn’t have the time to fly over after the race. We had to get back home. Some sort of silly work commitments were getting in the way of just Plane Fun. But looking at a planning chart later, I decided that a reasonable detour could be made to pay a visit on our way back home from the Big Muddy Air Race.

“Let’s put the top down,” I said to Lisa, as we skimmed above the trees at 500 feet, looking for the airport. According to our GPS, we should be right on top of it, but all we could see was an unbroken expanse of tall deep green trees. For some reason, I’d pictured Wisener Field on open, wind swept prairie.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

Lisa gave me a quizzical look, as if to say, I don’t think lowering doors of clear Plexiglas will improve our visibility enough to make the field easer to spot. “Open cockpit,” I explained, sliding my side down to a blast of sauna hot and wet Texas air, “to pretend we’re in the Jenny doing the first-ever landing at Wisener. If we can find it.”

“Ah,” crackled Lisa’s voice in my headset, and she gamely slid her side down.

Right on top of the airport I spot it. A painfully narrow (and short to my high-altitude eye) ribbon of black centered in a slender slit in the trees. Ya gotta be kidding me… We bank left, enter the pattern a bit lower than suggested and start to descend.

An especially tall group of trees stands proudly right off the approach end of the runway. I doubt my ability to descend sharply enough once over them to get to the ground without running out of runway. Bizarrely, Dr. Seuss pops into my head:

 

I do not like the look of the trees,

It makes me a little week in the knees.

 

I do not like the runway length,

I’m not sure my engine has the strength.

 

To my left is a lovely gap in the towering thicket of green. I drop towards it, down into it, but now I’m at a forty-five degree angle to the runway. It’s rare that I wish for rudder pedals, but this is one approach I really would have liked to slide-slip into. I make the best of it, dropping down towards the anorexic runway 18L, but I’m high and fast. I know a lost cause when I see one. I push the throttle forward and initiate a go-around.

Up we go again above the solid green mass of trees. Banking into the pattern, I lose sight of the runway again for a minute. Where the….? Oh! There it is. Here we go…

I use the same tactic, an angled final approach, but this time I’m slower and we settle onto the runway without amassing tree leaves in our landing gear. I feel like I’m in a canyon of green. But when we taxi to a stop, get out, and stand on the wing, the trees look harmless. Shorter from the ground than they looked from the air. Clearly, I don’t have barnstormer balls.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

While Lupita takes Lisa and I on a leisurely guided tour of the grounds, I’m secretly chomping at the bit to see the 100-year-old airplane. Before I meet the Wisener Jenny, I get to learn a little more about her. Apparently, the two Wisener brothers dearly loved the old Jenny, but they understood her time was passing when they got the letter from the government. Plus, they already had newer airplanes that could meet the airworthiness mandates, and they must have known this was not a battle they could win. They responded to the letter, certifying that they had destroyed the now officially un-airworthy Jenny.

Then, instead, they secretly and defiantly took her apart piece by piece, and stored her in a barn-like hangar at the edge of the runway. Which is why this Jenny is one of only about thirty or so that still exist on the entire planet.

But eight decades in the barn were unkind to the Wisner Jenny. Most of her fabric skin rotted away. Her metal rusted. Her wood skeleton dried and cracked. When the current generation of Wiseners decided to pull the Jenny back out of the barn they had some important decisions to make. Should they restore her or leave her authentic? Should they clean her up, or leave her as they found her?

In the end, they simply put the remaining parts back together, except for the rusty, corroded engine, which they placed on the hangar floor next to the skeletal Jenny.

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Most of the other remaining Jennies are either fully restored, or restored enough to look like they would have looked in their heyday. Some still actually fly. At the AirVenture museum there’s a half-covered Jenny, but it has shiny, varnished spars and ribs. I doubt it looked that good the day it left the Curtiss factory.

So this Jenny is sad, but she’s real. She’s a time capsule that shows the complexity of the construction, and the materials and techniques used at the dawn of the mass-production of airplanes. Sure, she’s dirty and dusty and rusty, but she’s also a holy relic, and I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of sin to clean up a holy relic. It would be like sending the Shroud of Turin out to the dry cleaners to get the stains out.

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A picture of the Wisner Jenny in her heyday graces the engine compartment. Photo by Lisa F. Bentson.

I walked around her time and time again. Unlike most museums, it was possible to get up close and personal with this Jenny. I took in the wood tailskid with its metal collar, the rudder bar, the fragmentary remains of the instrument panel. The model T Ford radiator. The dried and cracked leather around the twin cockpits, the oddly broken control stick, snapped off close to the floor.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

Her wheels are spoaked like a bicycle. Her fuselage is pencil-thin. Her wings are tall and wide, a maze of wire, ribs, and spars that’s dizzying. We think of Jennies as simple beasts. Instead, her complexity is mid-numbing.

And, yes, once I was done taking her in with my eyes, I was able to reach out my hand and touch her.

Finally, I was able to touch aviation history.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

 

Battling to see the eclipse

Poet Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but I think German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said it best: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so it was with me and my overly-elaborate plans to watch the Great American Eclipse. I’ll spare you the picayune details, but the original battle plan involved a ballet of our airplane, Southwest Airlines flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations in Urbana and Omaha. Why Urbana? There was an air race there the Saturday before the eclipse. Why Omaha? I honestly can’t remember anymore.

Looking back on it now, it all seems ridiculous. But it made sense at the time we planned it, and it was the result of countless hours of family dinnertime conversation. I guess as well as having too many chefs in the kitchen, we suffer from having too many generals in the war room.

At any rate, in March I made the hotel reservations. I made the rental car reservations. I made the airline reservations. I ordered our eclipse glasses. Five pair. My first contact with the enemy came within days of these maneuvers, when I tired to arrange for a hangar for Tess in Urbana.

“Race? What race?” asked the airport manager. Apparently, the race director had neglected to discuss the event with the host airport. One thing led to another, and the race was scrubbed.

I cancelled the hotel reservations. I cancelled the rental car reservations. I cancelled the airline reservations.

My second contact with the enemy came in April. Suddenly, the race was on again. I re-made the hotel reservations. I re-made the rental car reservations. I re-made the airline reservations.

But the war was far from over.

My third contact with the enemy came in May when my engine started burning more oil than gas. That battle was a protracted one, but by July it was clear we’d have no airplane for our airplane-centric battle plan. So back to the dawning board we went. Now too close to the Great Eclipse to find hotels anywhere near the zone, we kept Omaha in the plan, cancelling the Urbana part of the campaign. Ironically, in the end, the Urbana race was cancelled yet again, this time at the last minute. Had we still had our plane, we would have been well on our way out. Clearly the Fates—normally great air racing fans—must have decided they wanted to watch the eclipse instead.

But back to our evolving battle plan. Planeless, we kept Omaha in the picture, and decided to drive from our home base to our near-to-the-eclipse hotel rooms.

Then our Field Marshal became a casualty of war. Mom pushed herself a bit too hard at the State Senior Olympics, winning both a gold medal in the 90-94 age category and a case of dehydration that came with a two-day hospital stay.

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The next week was AirVenture. She had a grand time there, until she collapsed at the EAA Museum. More ER visits followed, and somewhere in the midst of these medical skirmishes, she picked up a nasty case of bronchitis.

As the moon and the sun converged, it was clear to me that she’d be in no shape to travel. I decided I couldn’t ask either of my sisters to miss out on the eclipse, so I elected to stay home with mom and ordered the rest of the troops onward.

Then the fog of war got thicker. Lisa had a work conflict and couldn’t be gone as long as the new plan took to execute. I tired for last-minute commercial air tickets into Omaha, but the laws of supply and demand were in full force. Tickets that usually run around $200 were over $1,500. In the end, Debs and Rio drove to Omaha in a leisurely fashion fitting Debbie’s energy levels, while Lisa did a last-minute solo power-drive up to Wyoming. Mom and I stayed home with our eclipse glasses determined to be satisfied with a partial eclipse.

And what about the classic nemesis of aviators, the weather? Mom and I in New Mexico, Rio and Debs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Lisa on the banks of the Platte River in Wyoming all watched the eclipse under clear, cloudless skies.

Rio and Debs—and Lisa a state over—were all bathed in eerie quasi darkness for two and a half minutes while mom and I, with popcorn and red wine, sat in her bird garden with our cardboard glasses watching the sun turn into a crescent, trying to convince ourselves it was a hair darker in the desert around us.

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It wasn’t.

But determined to experience that mid-day darkness I missed out on, I’m already planning for the next eclipse.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

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I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

…and then

The phone rang. OK. It wasn’t the phone. It was an email. And it didn’t ring. It bonged.

It just sounds more dramatic to say the phone rang.

So at the height of my recent engine crisis I emailed everyone I knew asking if they knew what happened to Don’s Dream Machines and if they knew of anyone who might be able to help me out.

One of my trusted wrench turners emailed me two URLs. I clicked on the first one and it was a Continental shop, which makes sense as we run a Continental under the cowl. I fired off an email to them explaining my predicament and what I was after.

I never heard back from them.

When I clicked on the second link it took me to a Lycoming shop—the other large maker of airplane engines. I wondered why on earth my contact would send me there, but fired off the same email to them and proceeded to descend into complete panic.

That night, I got a strange email. It was from a guy named Ken that I didn’t know, the subject line was Race 53, and it contained only one sentence: “William, are you running a c-85 engine now, not a c-90 or 0-200?”

Weird, I thought. Maybe it was a curious reader. Or maybe the spreading grapevine got word of my plight. But either way the writer deserved an answer, so I fired off a one-word reply and forgot all about it.

The next day, after I had committed to the plan of action with a second engine case and some new parts that I told you about last week, I got an email at lunch. It was from a guy named John, who said he’d been talking to the guy named Ken, who supposedly had been talking to me. Well, I guess the exchange of 14 words in two emails is a conversation nowadays. Anyway, John’s email had a sig file that showed he worked for the Lycoming outfit that I had emailed.

Ah-ha! Now the pieces were coming together. Anyway, he had a few questions and wanted to know my target date. I’d already decided on a course of action, but it’s always a good idea to keep all options open, plus he had taken the time to write, so he deserved the dignity of a reply.

I answered his questions and told him I needed the engine yesterday.

He was kind enough to respond to that, saying that yesterday wasn’t really an option, but that “we might be able to put something together fairly quickly” and to let him know if I wanted him to keep pursuing it.

I wrote back to ask what his definition of “fairly quickly” was.

Later than evening, I was briefing Rio on all that went on that day and he was questioning the wisdom of a Lycoming shop building a Continental engine for us, so we went to their website for the first time since I flashed on to use their contact page to email them.

In my haste I had misread. They weren’t Lycoming.

They were Ly-Con.

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And as we explored their website I was blown away. Their customer list is a virtual who’s who of air racers and airshow performers. Everyone who’s anyone seemed to be there. Reno Racers. Red Bull Racers. The nation’s top airshow performers.

“Holy crap,” said Rio.

This all-star engine shop was talking to me about building an engine for Race 53, and I was hardly giving them the time of day.

“I’ve been a dick,” I said to Rio.

“I want them to build our engine,” said Rio.

I sat down and wrote a nice email outlining what I needed in detail. As I did I worried more about what it would cost than how long it would take. Then I fired off a second email to my mechanic—stop the presses! Don’t order those parts just yet. I might have another option.

That was Thursday night. To make the deadline work on the second case option my guys cooked up, the parts had to be ordered on Monday.

At 6:00 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:05 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:10 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:15 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:20 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:25 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

We finally made contact at 10:10 a.m. I told John my predicament on the deadline and my need to make a decision by day’s end. He promised a quote by 5 p.m.

It never came.

It was the weekend, so I figured I could hold off a bit. Monday rolled around. I waited until noon. Then until three. Finally I had to make a decision. I sure liked the sound of Ly-Con, but at the same time, if they can’t keep a promised deadline on a quote, how can I trust them to honor a deadline on an engine rebuild? I called my regular team and told them to order the parts.

We’ve crossed the Rubicon once and for all. We’re going with the second second-hand case from the Ercoupe “junk yard,” and brand-new 0-200 guts, all assembled by a shop in Colorado.

 

Mechanic school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

Too busy for stress

Flying relaxes me. It always has, but it wasn’t until just the other day that I figured out why, and it’s so simple it made me laugh: Flying takes too much mental bandwidth to let stress in.

There are constant mental challenges in flying. Am I on course? Keep her at the right altitude, William. Check your oil pressure! What’s my cylinder head temp? Where would I put down if the engine crapped out right now? What’s the weather like ahead? How’s our fuel consumption? Keep her on course…

And there are the delightful attractions of seeing the globe from above. Look at that crazy field below! How on earth did they plow it like that?

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Plus the delightful attractions of being a citizen of the air. Check out that crazy cloud above! The sun above has lit up the ice crystals like neon southern lights!

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So partly, there’s just so much to do—even in a simple cockpit like mine—that the mind simply doesn’t have the capacity to latch onto all the little things that plague us in on the ground; and partly, when you’re in an airplane, you can’t do anything about most of the things that stress us out on the ground. Forgot to send the car payment in? Well, nothing you can do about that right now. Your mother needs her screen door fixed? Well, that ain’t happenin’ at 7,500 feet.

That blend of the high mental bandwidth required for flying, mixed with a location that limits what you can do anyway, nearly washes stress away completely. What little stress is left is drowned in the sea of confidence that taking a thousand pounds of metal and making it fly generates. Mastering any skill is good for the soul, but mastering something so humanly improbable as flight?

Tonic for the ego, for sure.

So that’s why flying relaxes me. It keeps me too busy to be stressed out.

How much flying is too much?

Fifteen days. Two hundred forty five gallons of 100 low-lead avgas. Three thousand, four hundred, and seventeen miles. Forty-four point nine hours added to my logbook.

Out from our New Mexico home base to South Carolina, then down to the middle of Florida, up the Gulf Coast, across the South, and eventually home again. Yep, it’s race season, and this epic commute took in the first four races of the season. When I got home again, I was pretty much flown out.

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But that was a week ago.

Now I’m chomping at the bit. The sky is calling.

How much flying is too much? Can we pilots ever get enough? I’ve always suspected not. But I’d never given any thought to who has flown more than anyone else until I encountered this plaque at Montgomery, Alabama, where fierce winds and turbulence forced me to alight early for the day (nearly kissing the ground after I pried my bruised body out of the cockpit):

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The plaque was my introduction to John Edward Long, Jr., the pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for more time as Pilot-in-Command than any other person on the planet. His total flight time? A holy-cow 64,397 hours.

Apparently, Long was a low and slow kind of pilot like me. Most of his record-breaking flight hours were in a Piper Cub, flying power line patrols less than 200 feet off the ground. He joined the Alabama Power Company in 1953, and flew for them pretty much five days a week for the next 46 years.

Long was born in 1915, a dozen years into the history of powered flight. He grew up in the age of Lindy and Post. When he was 15 years old, his grandmother gave him 50 cents to take a ride in a Ford Tri-motor, and he got bit by the aviation bug. Long started flying at age 17 in a Curtiss Robin. It was the Great Depression. Times were tough and money was tight. He washed airplanes, trading a week’s work for a half hour of flight time, and in 1939 he was granted pilot certificate number 44,202.

At 115 pounds, he was too light to be a military pilot when war broke out, so during World War 2 he served as an airplane mechanic instead. After the war he worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor before joining the power company.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Long filled 14 logbooks that, if added up and divided by the number of hours in a year, total up to a full seven years.

Even birds don’t spend that much of their lives in the air.

On average, from first setting foot in an airplane to hanging up his wings, he flew 961 hours a year—an astounding amount of time in the cockpit. And throughout it all, he had an amazing safety record.

Long passed away in 1999. I would have liked to have met him, but I’m glad to have at least discovered him. I count myself lucky that my long flight intersected his long career.

I’m on logbook number two now, but to be honest, I didn’t fill the first one. It just got too tattered up to use anymore. So Long’s long record is one I’ll never break, but it proves what I’ve always known: There’s no such thing as too much flying.

 

Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.

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It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…

 

That time of year, again

I haven’t flown in eleven days, and I’m already getting crabby. Last night I nearly kicked one of the cats.

It’s not that eleven days is all that long. I often go weeks at a time when I don’t fly. But those dry spells are self-imposed. Right now, on the other hand, I can’t fly because I don’t have an airplane. And to make matters worse, I have no clue when Tess will be back in her hangar.

Yes. It’s that time of year again. Tess is in Santa Fe with her mechanics for her annual inspection. As is typical, the mechanics have refused to even speculate on how long this one will take. And I can’t go over and take her up for a stretch of her wings and my soul because at this very moment, her left wing isn’t even attached!

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The good news is that firewall forward she’s been given a clean bill of health. That means my mechanics started with her engine and made sure everything between me and the spinner is still in good shape after an epic year traveling the country racing. Next comes a long list of “squawks” that need repair.

The copilot fuel tank needs to be removed and rebuilt. That’s a biggie. Another biggie is that we’re biting the bullet and installing an ADS-B transponder so we can fly into controlled airspace after January 1, 2020.

Her yokes, ailerons, and nose gear are out of alignment. In level flight, the yokes are tilted 12 degrees to the left and her nose gear is crooked, causing drag and uneven wear on the nose tire from landing with it cocked slightly sideways. The pilot’s side door, once again, has broken; and the velts that the two doors slide along have worn to shreds and need to be replaced. The windshield seals have failed again too, so while all that glass is out we’ve decided to change it all to LP Aero UV/Infrared blocking replacements. I’m told that this magic material can drop cockpit temps by as much as 20 degrees. What a blessing that will be, plus we won’t need to use as much sunscreen!

One of the wing walks has come loose. The altimeter is wonky, and I’m not convinced the amp meter is working right. The tail is sagging a bit, so more spacers will have to be added to the main landing gear. And now that we have more electrical power than we used to have—thanks to the fact that the generator died last season and was replaced with an alternator—I’ve had my guys add some USB charging ports for all the modern gadgets we fly and travel with.

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The tie-down loop on the tail needed to be replaced. The cabin heat hose is in the way of the oil dipstick on the new exhaust. And so on, and so forth.

There’s nothing I can do but wait and let nature—and the mechanics— take its/their course.

It’s an annul ritual, and at least the enforced flying break makes me that much more grateful that the rest of the year I can drive to the airport and fly anytime I want.

In the meantime, however, I guess there’s nothing to do but go make up with the cat.