Low altitude sickness and battle drones

Buzzing shrilly, like a swarm of angry wasps, the drone hovers over our dining room table.

Well, OK. “Hover” would be an exaggeration. Careen-wildly-back-and-forth would be more accurate. Despite my best efforts, and my drone pilot license, things could be going better. “Left, left, left,” says Lisa, then a second later, “right-right-right!” The drone bounces off the light fixture, grazes the patio door, then dives unexpectedly on our gray tabby, Cougar.

Cougar lets out a yowl and dashes for cover, his tail puffing up like a raccoon. The Siamese had the unusual good sense to take cover as soon as she heard the drone’s four motors start.

I add power and the drone surges upwards, slamming into the ceiling. I back off on the throttle and the palm-sized drone stabilizes for a moment, about six inches above our heads, then starts drifting toward Grandma Jean. Rio grabs a spatula to protect her. I add power again and the drone smoothly rises and becomes firmly entangled in the light fixture that hangs over the dinner table. The drone screams and bucks, freeing dust bunnies from the light, while I fumble with the controls to shut it off.

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“Hmmm…” says Lisa.

Grandma Jean is silent, and Debbie, now that the coast is clear, returns her attention to her iPhone. Rio sighs, sets down the spatula, and rolls his eyes, “We really need to get you two back in the air.”

Yes. I’m suffering from low altitude sickness.

As is my wing-woman. That happens to pilots who spend too much time on the ground.

I set the drone’s controller down and gaze up at the drone. It’s one of a pair. This one has a tan camo paint job. Its partner sports green camo. Yep. They’re Battling Drones, designed for two-player dog fighting. Each drone is equipped with an infrared “cannon” so that they can shoot at each other. According to the box, when you hit your opponent, the other drone is temporarily disabled and its controller will light up, make noise, and vibrate to alert the pilot to the hit. Three hits and you win the dogfight.

Of course, the box also says each has a 6-axis gyroscope to make the drones easy to fly and keeps them stable. Allegedly, the drones can hover, move forward, backward, side-to-side, up and down, and make 360-degree flips. There’s even a high-speed flight mode.

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It seemed the perfect distraction for a grounded, highly competitive pilot. In fact, I was so excited to try them out that I didn’t clear the dinner dishes before the maiden flight, even though the manual says, “It is recommended to operate the Battling Drone in a wide open space. The ideal space should have a 200-foot radius.”

But rather than cheering me up, the dangling drone has added to my depression. How am I ever going to master this diminutive hypersensitive aircraft enough to fly it in a controlled manner, much less actually shoot down my opponent with it?

Debbie casts one eye up at the dangling drone and suggests that perhaps our empty hangar might be a better place to train for the upcoming drone war.

“Count me in,” says Grandma Jean.

 

A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?

A change of hearts

OK, forget everything I said last week. If the damned engine ever gets back on the plane, we’re not going to follow our original break-in plan. I’m going to do it by myself. Or at least the first part of it.

Now, in case you’ve forgotten, back in early September the freshly rebuilt engine was bolted onto Tess and I innocently planned a break-in flight. My flight plan had us taking off from Santa Fe early in the morning, turning south and shooting down the gap between the northern tips of the Sandias and Rowe Mesa at low altitude, turning east at Moriarty, then barnstorming at 500 feet AGL across the empty wastes of eastern New Mexico and over our home base of Santa Rosa—where the colors on the sectional chart change from khaki to pale yellow, telling us we’d be below 5,000 feet. On we’d fly into West Texas, our nose pointed toward Herford, a town southwest of Amarillo, where we’d stop for fuel. All of this was planned for an optimal break-in: The lowest possible altitude; minimal low RPM ops; no long descents; landing with some power; and keeping the taxi as short as possible.

Next, we’d fly to Palo Duro Canyon to follow the wide dry wash called Prairie Dog Town Fork. This is where the sectional map changes from pale yellow to tan. We’d then be below 3,000 feet for the first time on the flight. A scant thirty miles farther on, at a random lat-long, the color on the sectional map changes to sage green and the terrain below our wings would stand at 2,000 feet above sea level. We would have travelled 349 miles to reach this point. There’s no closer low-lying land. From there we’d turn northeast and follow the edge of the escarpment until we reached Weatherford, OK, elevation 1,605 feet.

The next morning we’d do it all again. In reverse. Then it would be time for the new engine’s first oil change.

Of course, as you all know, that flight never got beyond Santa Fe’s Class D airspace. The engine vomited out all its oil in minutes. As it was really part of the racing story, I wrote about it for GA News, and was roundly criticized by my readers for having a “passenger” along during a “test flight.”

Huh?

First off, it wasn’t a test flight. It was a break-in. Secondly, Lisa is a pilot, and a common (if not required) crewmember, so I never think of her as a passenger. That said, I do know the statistics on engine failures after rebuilds, and she and I discussed the issue at great length. She accepted the risk and basically threatened to chain herself to the propeller if I refused to take her along. But then she also insisted that we create a series of customized engine failure checklists for each runway we might use, and procedures at each altitude—a degree of safety I probably wouldn’t have bothered with on my own.

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Still, I never thought of it as a test flight. Only an engine break-in.

But the story doesn’t end there. Remember last week when I told you that the flight instructor I use for my flight reviews declined to help me with my current currency issue? He followed that up with an email that quoted 14 CFR Part 91.407, a Federal Aviation Administration regulation titled, “Operation after maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but the crux of it is that it’s verboten to carry a passenger in a plane after any maintenance that “may have appreciably changed its flight characteristics,” until the airplane has undergone an operational check, and that flight is logged in the airplane’s records. The Feds don’t use the word “test flight,” and any pilot with a Private ticket or higher can undertake the operational check. The section also includes several exceptions, including one that says a ground check will suffice if the rebuild “has not appreciably changed the flight characteristics or substantially affected the flight operation of the aircraft.”

Soooooo….. Does a simple engine rebuild fall under this regulation? As it turns out, that’s a hotly debated subject, but one that I’ve been thinking a lot about since the reg was pointed out to me. On the surface, I’d say, no, it doesn’t. At least not for most rebuilds. If you follow the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for overhauling the engine, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in performance before and after a rebuild—except when looking at the balance in your checking account. And it certainly wouldn’t cause an “appreciable” change in flight characteristics. Even if you put off the overhaul until your engine was getting pretty doggy, you might find your plane had quite the spring back in its step, but it wouldn’t fly differently. I personally feel that the intent of the law is aimed more at things like the installation of vortex generators, which totally change takeoff performance.

On the other hand, we didn’t just rebuild our C-85 engine. We (legally) converted it to a 0-200 stroker. That’s mainly for ease of parts availability, and while the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) paperwork says there’s no power change, most people I talked to reported a lovely increase in horsepower. Was that because they put off the rebuilds so long that it just seemed better compared to their worn out engines, or does the stroker really deliver more oomph?

The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if my “new” engine fell under 91.407, but the coffin on my original plan wasn’t nailed tightly shut just yet.

But the next nail came swiftly. Now, I’ve been behind on my reading. I have no excuse for that because it’s not like I’m busy flying, or anything. But two nights ago, I finally got to the August issue of AOPA Pilot. As I was thumbing though it, I came across Mike Busch’s excellent Savvy Maintenance column. And guess what? Yeah. He was talking about the damn 91.407, and it sounded like he was talking directly to me.

He was quick to point out that the regulation isn’t clear about what types of maintenance require a “test flight,” but he specifically talked about a crash following an engine overhaul. Well, a crash plus a second almost crash, both of which, thankfully, had happy endings—at least for the people in the planes, if not for the planes themselves.

In the first crash the pilot had his girlfriend and her two young children aboard on an Island-hopping day adventure in Puget Sound, Washington. Busch caustically wrote, “I can’t help asking what possessed this pilot to conduct his initial post-maintenance test flight (immediately following an extensive engine teardown and propeller overhaul) on an overwater flight with a cabin full of passengers, including young children.”

Well, at least I had the sense not to take my son with me on the first flight, but maybe I wasn’t taking this seriously enough, even so. I gave the article to Lisa.

She’d previously read the readers’ comments and the CFI’s email. The next day she told me she’d read the article and that she decided that when we get the engine back, I should orbit the Santa Fe airport—solo—for an hour or so, land, inspect, then fly solo back to our home base. If all was well, on another day we could make the formal break-in flight to sage green on the sectional chart as a team.

She reflected for a moment, then added, “the Universe usually needs to tell me something two or three times, but eventually I listen.”

Yeah. Me too.

 

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.