Throttle Tale—Part 2

Low, un-forecasted, icky clouds have the north side of Dallas/Fort Worth socked in. I’m in Stark’s exceedingly stark little terminal building, which resembles an abandoned construction shack. Dirt and dead bugs form alternate layers on the floor at the base of the walls and on the windowsills. There are water stains on the ceiling tiles—at least the ones that haven’t fallen down—the windows are fifthly, bright orange rust mars the sinks, and let’s not even talk about the toilets.

But at least it’s shelter from the wind, and the air conditioning works. After wiping mystery crumbs and the dried carcasses of dead moths off the table with a scrap of yellowing newspaper, I sit in a faded plastic cafeteria chair and use the mobile hotspot on my cell phone to check the weather on my FlightPad while nibbling on a “meatasaurus” sandwich. When you travel slow, you can’t take the time to drive into town for lunch.

I have a choice: I can wait an hour or two at Stark for the ceilings to rise, or work my way around the south side of the city. It’s a longer ground track, and it’s into the wind. Still, I’d rather waste time in the air than on the ground.

At least on this ground.

I finish my sandwich, gather my things, and head back to Tessie. Up onto her left wing, toss the lunch bag in back, step over the fighter plane-style sidewall into the cozy cockpit, then slide down into the seat. I love the way my Coupe wraps her loving arms around me. I slide the doors up over my head and run through the engine start checklist. If I don’t use the checklist I tend to forget to open the master fuel cut off, and the engine stops about 30 seconds after starting, embarrassing when other pilots are watching. There’s not much risk of that on this blustery, hazy day in Onley, Texas; but still…

Engine up and running I test the throttle. It runs normally. Yeah. Must ‘a been some sort of weird fuel/air thing with the conditions. Clearly everything is fine.

I head out into the haze. Into the headwinds. Leveling off in cruise I’m just shy of the TACH redline for maximum speed. On the highway below me I see a U-Haul truck overtaking me. The driver looks up and me, shakes his head, and pulls away. Next, I’m over taken by a group of aging hippies in a battered VW microbus, two old ladies in a 1974 Yugo, and a kid on his bicycle who’s delivering newspapers.

This is going to be a long flight.

I have a track planned: A long, loping circle around the south side of Dallas. But I know that as the temperature rises, so too will the clouds, and I hope to take a short cut or two. I keep an eye on the ceilings being reported through my ADS-B, and I’m grateful for the advantage of near real-time weather reports from over the horizon that my pilot forefathers didn’t have.

Sure enough, as I fly south, ceilings to the east of me begin to improve, and I tighten my circle. Terrell lies on the east side of Dallas. If it weren’t for that nasty Class Bravo airspace around the huge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it would actually be a straight shot from my home base—but I must go around either north or south.

By the time Terrell finally comes into view, I’ve had enough flying and I’m looking forward to calling it a day. I make my radio call, come into the downwind, and remembering my throttle excitement on my last landing, leave the carb heat untouched. Down over the trees I swoop, base to final, and, darn… A little low again. I throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good.

I pull the carb heat on, pump the throttle and the engine roars back to life. This time, it is only a matter of seconds. Long seconds, but seconds nonetheless.

What the Sam Heck?

I touch down, shaken, not stirred. I taxi off the runway, using drunk driver corrections to the left, and counter-corrections to the right to get Tess to track straight ahead. I feel like a child playing with a toy car simulator.

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Image: Amazon

Is this getting worse, or am I just tired?

The next morning Tess has a bunch of cables taped to her nose. And a strange little box, facing her prop. I’m getting the prop dynamically balanced. Not that I think there’s a problem, but at last year’s annual we had a brand-new RC Allen electric attitude indicator put in. It failed at once. We had to pull it out and sent it back. They replaced some bearing or bushing or something, and back in the plane it went. When we next flew, it failed again. This time, when we sent it back, they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Naturally, I had to pay for the installation, de-installation, re-installation, de-de-installation, re-re-installation—so I was getting a little hot under the collar about a two thousand-dollar instrument that had never worked, and was getting even more expensive in the effort to get it to work. All of this has taken nearly a year due to the long periods of down time with various other repairs that have been plaguing us.

Anyway, my lead mechanic talked to the folks at Kelly Manufacturing (who make the RC Allen products) and they decided perhaps it was a vibration issue, which is what led me to my adventure at Double Eagle II. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but after spending most of a morning there, the shop I’d gone to for the prop balancing couldn’t get their gear to work, so it was a wasted trip. One other shop in the state doesn’t do it anymore, and the third had their gear out for repair and didn’t know when it would be back. So I decided to have it done in Texas before the race.

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Long story short: Tess’s prop wasn’t too badly out of balance. The Terrell mechanic and I would jump into the plane, throttle up to high RPM for ten seconds or so and take measurements on a hand-held computer. Then we’d shut down, and he’d review the readings and add some small weights to the back of the spinner. Then we’d fire back up and do it all over again.

One of the times, the engine hesitated for a moment, but quickly recovered.

In the end, he tweaked the prop balance to near perfection, but he said it was close enough in the first place that it was unlikely I’d notice any difference. So what’s up with the attitude indictor? I guess Tess just doesn’t want me to know her attitude.

I had hoped to run my handicap validation flight for the race after the prop was balanced, but the clouds are too low. It needs to be done at a density altitude of 6,000 feet. Back home, this time of year, that would be about a thousand feet underground. Here in central Texas, it’s about 4,000 feet up, but the clouds are heavy at 2K.

So instead, I ended up doing what aviation people do when they have a few minutes to spare. I hung around the hangar and shot the breeze with the mechanic. In talking about the trip over, the weird throttle thing came up, and the mechanic mentioned that he thought the engine’s hesitation during our testing was unusual, but as I didn’t react, he figured it was a normal thing for Tess. I conceded that I didn’t know what was normal in this plane anymore, but asked if he’d be willing to take a quick look at the throttle before they put Tess to bed for the night. I’d also been having some issues keeping her at a set idle speed since the throttle quad was removed to work on the trim during the last round of repairs, and I thought maybe it was slipping a little or something.

He promised he would.

A couple of hours later, as I was heading down the third-floor hallway of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites to go out to dinner, my phone rang. It was from some town in Texas I’d never heard of so, I assumed it was the latest gambit from those pesky folks at the Resort Rewards Center, or the pesky folks trying to sell me an extended warranty on a car I don’t own anymore, or the pesky folks that can help me with the student loan I don’t have. I almost didn’t answer it. But at the last minute I did. It was the lady who ran the shop.

“Hey, William,” she said casually, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?’

Next time on Plane Tales: For want of a nail…

 

Another return

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

It’s too important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you feel?” I ask.

“OK,” he says.

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

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

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

 

Slaves to the damn weather

“Damn,” I mutter under my breath as I jump down off the wing. It’s the weather. Well, more correctly, the weather forecast. On my iPhone a green and blue tidal wave: Air Sports Net’s wind forecast for tomorrow morning. The Plane Plan was to test-fly Tess, but thanks to the weather, it doesn’t look good for the home team.

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And it isn’t just Air Sports Net that has a dim view of the sky. Weather Underground, Dark Sky, and the Garmin Pilot MOS—Model Output Statistics—are all in agreement. A trinity plus one says the morning wind is unfit for flying in general, much less for a test flight.

Four weather sources? Isn’t that, like, excessive? Well, the truth is that we pilots are slaves to the weather. After all, we go to work in the sky, the weather’s home turf, so smart pilots do their best to discover what kind of mood the weather going to be in before we get there. Hey, good weather means good flying, while bad weather means bad flying—or more frequently, no flying at all. Which is why a bad weather forecast usually rates a “damn” in my book.

And I’ve been saying “damn” a lot lately.

Or a lot more than I used to, it seems to me. My home state is supposedly blessed with 310 days of sunshine a year, and in past years it was a rare thing when weather scrubbed a local flight. Not to say we don’t have our weather challenges here in New Mexico. We have a lot of rugged terrain and afternoon winds are common. These winds churn and tumble across the landscape, resulting in turbulent skies that make feather-weight planes like Tess good training grounds for future bull-riding rodeo stars.

But this year… this year is different. Howling winds early in the morning. Rain and snow. Poor visibility. Low ceilings. Fog! Fog in arid New Mexico! Who ever heard of such a thing? I’ve seen New Mexico fog maybe twice in three decades prior to this year. Now, it’s like London in Sherlock Holmes’ day.

But it’s not just New Mexico weather. As a family, we catch ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir to see what’s happening over the horizon, and to set a good example for Rio about the importance of being an informed citizen. And lately I’ve noticed that the weather is a big story. Occasionally the lead story, and commonly “above the fold” before the first commercial break.

Nearly every night.

That didn’t used to happen. Is the weather changing, or is the public’s focus on it changing? I’m not sure. But this damn weather is affecting more than my personal flying. Case in point: At the end of last year my plane friend Lisa needed about six or eight lessons to finish up her ticket, so she decided that the best solution was to fly every single day during her college’s Christmas vacation. And although quite pricey, she also decided to hangar her plane Warbler in Santa Fe to be close to her instructor to simplify travel logistics.

I think she got to fly twice over the normally cool, sunny break. The rest of the days were unflyable.

Damn weather.

Naturally, being tough and tenacious, Lisa rallied and figured, fine: I’ll keep the plane over there a little longer and get the flights done on weekends. But then each Friday evening I watched David Muir and his team display colorful radar images of yet another weekend storm set to sweep over the state. Weekend after weekend, storm systems rolled in and over us, and before we could take a breath, roll up our sleeves, and soak up some vitamin D, the next storm was set to pounce upon us.

Warbler is still in Santa Fe, three full months of hangar rent later.

And come to think of it, it’s not just the weekend weather. Rio’s Monday lessons have been weathered out so many times he’s taken to calling himself a Rusty Pilot.

Of course, another complication when it comes to weather is that weather forecasts are wrong as often as they are right. Take today for instance. This morning, I’m writing instead of flying—not a bad alternative, but never my first choice. Why? Because those four forecasts sixteen hours ago led me to believe that flying this morning would be a bad idea, so I scrubbed Tessie’s scheduled test flight.

The winds this morning over in Santa Fe were forecast to be 20 something gusting to 30 something from dawn on. It’s now three hours after sunrise and looking at one of my weather apps, right now there’s a three mile an hour wind (unlike most pilots, I disdain knots). Barely enough to rumple the wind socks at Santa Fe. I could have been making serious progress toward getting my baby back in the air and off to the races again.

Yeah. All four forecasts were wrong. And yes, I’m annoyed.

Dam weather.

Damn weather forecasts.

And looking forward, the next three days are forecast to have bad weather.

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Well… Damn.