Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.


I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.


Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.


Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.


Oil leak detectives

Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.

Silly me.

Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.

It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.

When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.


Damn. What’s this going to cost me?

Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?

oil 4

Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?

Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.


We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.

Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.

I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.


He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.

But where?

One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.

Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.


When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.


As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.

Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.


Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.

When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.

Until I open the hangar door again.



First fire

It’s cold. Bone-chillingly cold. The wind whips the heat out of my black flight jacket as soon as the sun kisses it. My soul is cold, too. And I’m nervous. Tense. The muscles in my legs throb, my shoulders are tight. I’m standing on the tarmac in Santa Fe outside the maintenance shop, looking at Tessie and the naked engine bolted onto her nose. My mechanics, like me, are so unsure of this thrice rebuilt engine that they’ve done nothing more than the bare minimum installation to test it.

Then it’s time. Time for the first power test. My chief mechanic looks around to be sure we are all well clear, then he presses the starter button. Without a second’s hesitation, the new engine transforms from silent, cold metal parts to a living, breathing thing.


He keeps the power low, letting the oil warm up, letting the moving parts stroke each other for the first time. I cock my ear to one side. There’s nothing quite wrong, really, but something’s not quite right, either. Rio leans toward me, “She sounds rough,” he shouts.


Hmmm…. No. Not rough. More an absence of smooth. And an absence of the proper baritone. After a time, the engine is shut down. Various parts poked, prodded, and inspected. Then a second start. This time my mechanic slowly advances the throttle. Tess bucks and strains. Her tail quivers. The loose bottom cowl rattles in the slipstream of the prop. The volume increases as more and more power is fed to the engine. The prop is now a near-invisible grey disc.


But I barely see it. My eyes are riveted to the black breather hose coming out the bottom of the engine. I wait to see if an ugly brown jet of oil will burst forth. I can’t tell whether or not the engine is at full power, but the wing tips are quivering. Still no oil.

Five seconds.



Now is when it should happen, if it’s going to.




No oil. I lose track of the seconds. Still staring at the tube, I’m focusing on the sound of the engine, trying to conjure up the sound of the previous build attempt. Something’s different. It’s somehow more anemic. Something in the waves of sound coming off the front of the plane is less smooth. My legs throb. My shoulders are concrete.

Then the volume drops, steadily, steadily, steadily. Then silence, except for the wind. The prop becomes visible, spins two lazy rotations, then stops.

No oil.

I walk up to the cockpit as my mechanic slides the canopy down. I should be happy, I suppose. But I’m not. He doesn’t look happy either. “I could only get twenty three fifty out of it,” he says.

I don’t comprehend. Not until it’s spelled out to me. The previous two versions of this engine blew oil when the RPM hit 2,400. This engine isn’t generating enough power to prove it won’t do the same. My mechanic theorizes it’s the cold day. The atmosphere is thicker. The prop has to fight harder to slice though the air.

I don’t buy it.

“At least that’s better than the old engine ever gave us,” he adds helpfully. This stray fact does nothing to improve my mood. I’m cold, stressed, and depressed. I head back into the heat of the hangar to process all I’ve seen, heard, felt.

I’m bothered by the fact that this engine doesn’t seem as strong as the previous versions. Of course, those two were grossly defective. I suppose whatever mysterious aliment they suffered from may have made them abnormally powerful as a side benefit. If so, this is an improvement.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

Still, there’s nothing more we can do on the ground. Up in the sky, flying, we’ll get a higher RPM. We’ll have to take wing to see if the engine will start vomiting out its oil. Semi-retired, for the moment, as an air race pilot, I’m about to start my new career.

As a test pilot.

We talk protocol. What’s best for the engine vs. what’s safe, given all that’s transpired. I propose a 30-minute test flight, never leaving glide distance from the airport. My mechanic says he’d like something a little more conservative.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I was thinking more of just once around the pattern,” says my mechanic. I bow to superior experience. Not to mention the unspoken worries of the man I’m entrusting my life to.

So that’s the plan. Once the engine is fully re-installed, with its baffling, cowling, nose bowl, spinner, and all the rest, I’ll come back. I’ll take off. I’ll keep a hair low, with a slightly long downwind leg to try to get into full power cruise configuration, then land for inspection.

Hopefully Tess’s belly will be clean and dry. But if it’s slick with oil, based on the previous oil loss we’ve seen, she’ll still have some left in her sump. All things being equal, it’s a safe test. But I have zero trust in this engine, given all that’s transpired over the last five months. Still, the flight doesn’t scare me. It’s logical. Well considered. As safe as we can make it.

If that flight goes well, I’ll take a second hop. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe 45. Again I’ll land for inspection. If she passes that test, then a ferry flight back home is in order. Depending on the wind, and what this new engine will really do, that’s an hour or an hour and a quarter. Then, and only then, will we undertake the break-in flight. Hopefully these extra flights won’t forever ruin the engine’s piston rings, but there’s no choice, given the events we’ve been though. Taking off cold for a break-in flight would be crazy.

Insane, even. And in hindsight, maybe it was all along.

And when will I feel confortable taking a passenger, or my son, up again? When, and only when, I trust the engine.

How long will that take? I don’t know. I suspect that as I walk up to my trusty steed, the muscles in my legs will throb, and my shoulders will be tight, for a long time to come.



A cheap non-death

The email was taking forever to download. Who on earth was sending me such a large file? When it finally finished, and I saw who sent it, my blood ran cold.

It was from my mechanic.

Tess was in his shop for a simple oil change. Nothing else, for once. Or so I thought. But as it often turns out with airplanes, there was an unexpected problem. While changing the oil, the boys at the shop discovered a crack in the left exhaust stack. Not just a little crack, mind you, but a deep jagged one that cut deeply into the skin of the pipe, traveling nearly around the tube around its perimeter.


When I called my mechanic he told me that in his judgment the pipe would have “completely separated” within five hours on our upcoming cross country to South Carolina.

Replacement was the best option, provided a replacement could be found. Engine parts for seventy-year-old airplanes aren’t exactly on the shelf at Walmart. We’re luckier than most owners of old airplanes, however, because an outfit in Colorado called Univair holds the type certificate for the Ercoupe. They have a lot of “new old stock” parts in house, and if they don’t have what you need, they have all the old tools and jigs to build it for you.

The problem is that this is not a fast process.

Still, it beats haunting junkyards for parts. Some owners of orphaned planes need to own several just to ensure that they have parts as things break down.

So it wasn’t a matter of could Tess be fixed, but simply how fast. We’ve still got four races to go this season. Our rivals are ahead of us, but it’s not hopeless. Unless we miss a race. Then it would be all over for our hopes of wrenching the Production Gold Trophy from Team Ely.

I was so focused on getting the repairs done in time that I didn’t even think to stop and ask what all of this meant. But it was Lisa’s first question: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Luckily the question was in an email, so she didn’t see my deer-in-the-headlights dumbfounded expression.

Naturally, I quickly did some online research before answering her. One of the beautiful things about email is no one ever really knows for sure when you received it. It’s much easier to appear smart in email than over the phone.

I found an Advisory Circular entitled “Inspection and Care of General Aviation Aircraft Exhaust Systems.” Advisory Circulars are non-regulatory publications put out by the FAA to help interpret regulations, or educate the flying community about safety issues. One of the first things this Circular said was that exhaust system failures have led to “numerous fatalities and injuries to pilots and passengers.”

Who knew?

Of course, there’s the obvious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. But apparently an exhaust failure can also cause a partial or complete loss of engine power. And additionally, we’re told that exhaust system failures are a leading cause of engine fires.

I emailed Lisa back, “Did I ever tell you about Advisory Circulars?”

Meanwhile, my mechanic did find a part and got it overnighted out. By week’s end, and well in time for our cross-country “commute” to the race, we were good to go. The cost?


The part was about four hundred bucks. The rest was labor. It was a tricky part to get to, requiring the entire cowling and nose bowl to be removed. And removing the nose bowl requires removing the prop, and so forth. All this takes time, and thus money.

When I fired her up to bring her home the cockpit filled with an odd smell, part space heater burning off dust at first use in the autumn, part new toaster oven on its maiden voyage. But once in the air, I had to back off on my throttle. I had more power than I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe the crack had been robbing me of some performance. I couldn’t wait to get back on the race course.

A few days later, while hitching a ride with my friend Eve, she asked what our next flying adventure was, and somehow we ended up on the subject of the exhaust stack and the cost of its repair. She asked the same question Lisa did: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Of course, this time I knew the answer, having already researched it. “Well, probably nothing in our case, but theoretically exhaust problems can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, or engine failures. All of which would suck. Particularly if all three happened at once.”

Without batting an eye Eve responded, “That repair sounds like a cheap non-death to me.”


The rest of the story: While carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, and fire are all real risks for various sorts of airplanes, we were at low risk for any of the above. Our cabin leaks like a sieve, so it’s unlikely we’d be strongly affected by exhaust gasses; power loss would apparently be minimal on our plane; and fires are most common in turbocharged engines. When chatting with the guys at the shop after the repairs, they told me that on Tess all we would have been likely to suffer was a hell of a lot of noise and a partial failure of the carb heat system.


It’s always something…

Tess had been with her mechanics the better part of two weeks between races. The list of improvements, repairs, and “squawks” was pretty long. The boys were removing the remains of the now un-used vacuum system, installing an electric attitude indicator, fixing the broken push-to-talk switch on the copilot yoke, and replacing loose rivets on the belly. The mags were out of timing, whatever that means, and half the spark plugs were replaced—the other four being cleaned and gapped. For the third time, hot and windy Kansas ripped off one of my wing walks, the windshield had come loose, and the metal around the camlocs that hold the cowl closed on the pilot’s side was suffering the effects of old age, called metal fatigue in airplane-speak.

Somehow I had bumped the throttle getting into the plane at Indy, and hit it just right (or wrong) causing the antique crystal halves to become unglued. One half promptly fell to the floor and rolled to the side where it fell down deep into the belly of the beast. The guys had to remove the seat to get to it.

The nose shimmy is back again, one of those gremlins that we can never quite track down. There must be 200 causes of Ercoupe nose wheel shimmy, and we’ve only tried 180 repairs so far.

Oh. And she needed an oil change. The fifth this year.

So after not flying for a bit, and writing a check with a lot of numbers and one comma in it, I was looking forward to having a perfectly functioning plane. At least for the flight home.

But it was not to be.

As soon as I lifted off, the nose pitched sharply down. I drew back hard on the yoke and kept her in the air. I fiddled with the trim control, but nothing happened. In a steady climb, I had heavy down-pressure. At 8,500 feet, high enough to clear the top of Rowe Mesa with comfort, I leveled out and once again tried to trim the plane. No luck. It took about ten pounds of backpressure to hold her level.


I got a good workout getting home.

On the ground, as I suspected, the trim tab was deflected for a descent, and no amount of fiddling with the lever in the cockpit changed it.

Naturally, I vented my frustration by sending a nasty email to my mechanic, who responded that they hadn’t touched the trim system in the course of their work on the plane, which of course I knew was true. Still, in a just universe, you’d expect a brief respite from repairs.

At least for the flight home from the mechanic.

Dead dogs, kits, and sick puppies

Our buddy Lisa wants a plane of her own. And there’s no talking any sense into her. After all, she can afford one. Or more correctly, she can afford to buy one. Anyone can. Most used airplanes cost less than cars, after all. What I’m having a hard time making her understand is that buying a plane is only the beginning of what a plane will cost you.

Just for “fun” I added up the checks I’ve written to my mechanic over the last two-and-a-half years since we became an airplane-owning family. They added up to almost three times as much as the stupid plane cost in the first place.

Gosh. I’m buying a whole “new” plane every year.

Now, unlike me, Lisa is pretty handy with wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and the like, so Rio turned her on to the idea of building a “kit” plane instead of buying a used airplane. Yes, if you didn’t know it, it’s legal and perfectly safe to build an airplane yourself. Thousands of people do it. In fact, there are more than 33,000 “home built” airplanes plying the skies of America.

Some are built from no more than a set of plans and a lot of sweat, others are from you-assemble-it kits so complete that the only other thing you need to buy is paint.


Of course, kits aren’t cheap, but when you complete one, you’ve got a brand new airplane. It might cost Lisa more in the short run, and of course it could take her several years to build it, but over the course of a decade she’ll come out waaaaay ahead financially. Plus, as the builder, going forward, she’ll be allowed to do much of her own maintenance, another cost savings.

Several days after Rio put the idea in her head, I got an email from Lisa that read: “According to Light Plane Maintenance magazine, kit planes are better than trying to resuscitate a dead dog.”

That got me thinking about Tessie. Are we constantly trying to resuscitate a dead dog? The thought depressed me until I looked through the family photo album. This airplane has transformed all our lives through a myriad of adventures we could not have dared to dream of five years ago. Although we are constantly resuscitating her, she breathes life back into all our souls. It’s a trade that’s more than fair. Rather than a dead dog, she’s more like a sick puppy. One that needs a lot of attention, but is infinitely loyal and loving in return. I have no regrets at all.

But Lisa should still buy a kit.


More Maintenance musings

On one hand, I groan when I see an email from my mechanic while Tessie is in his hangar, but on the other hand, I get grumpy when a few days have gone by and I haven’t heard from him. I know. It’s psychotic. Anyway, the latest email said I should call the carb guy. Now, for background, understand that Ercoupes are equipped with the same carburetor that the Wright Flyer used.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the Plane Tales Plane, like the bulk of the Ercoupe fleet, has a Stromberg carburetor, a design that dates to the 1920s. It’s a somewhat crude, but not simple, system. Because Strombergs really aren’t seen that often outside the “vintage” airplane community, my mechanic was quick to agree that we should send “that funky carburetor of yours” out to a specialist when it began to develop a strange personality over the last year.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 8.22.15 AM

So as part of this year’s annual, the carburetor, which lives on the bottom of my engine, was unbolted, boxed, and sent via UPS across the country to be refurbished. But apparently, something unexpected had come up. I called the carb guy and he told me that my carburetor was by far the saddest specimen he had seen in his entire career. To quote him exactly: It was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Oh great.

Apparently previous owners had run it with an illegal fuel, and the float bowl (the part highlighted in orange on the drawing above) was full of “a ton of guck.” Corrosion of some sort from a reaction between alcohol in autogas and the metal parts in the engine, made worse by the fact the fuel strainer was installed backwards and therefore not straining. Here’s the picture he sent:

Image 1 8.05.44 AM

He was amazed that nothing had broken loose, gotten sucked into the system and caused the engine to stop. You know. Like in flight. He also seemed personally insulted that anyone could treat a carburetor so badly. I felt like a pet owner being accused of animal abuse. I had to stammer and stumble and explain that the cat was half-starved when I adopted her, and that I was doing my best to nurse her back to health.

Mollified by my swearing that I had fed her only proper 100 low-lead avgas, and would continue to do so, and by my willingness to pay more money for the extra work required, I was let off the hook and was not formally reported to the airplane welfare agencies for carburetor abuse.

One of these days, maybe soon, we will have replaced or refurbished every single system, part, rod, and pulley on this airplane. And then the only thing in my inbox will be a simple message like: “We didn’t find anything wrong this year, so we just changed the oil and cleaned the windshield. Come pick you your plane.”

Hey, I’m a pilot. Flights of fancy come with the territory.

Maintenance musings

As maintenance issues and costs mount, I enter the holiday season second-guessing every airplane purchase decision I ever made. Or put in a more holiday way, how can I help but play chess with the Ghost of Christmas Past when my annual inspection falls at the happiest time of the year?

Yes, I’ve come to realize that even though I’ve been flying airplanes for 35 years, since I was seventeen years old, in fact, I didn’t learn one damn thing in all that time about buying and owning them. Don’t get me wrong. I tried to learn, but some fields of knowledge require a degree from the U-of-K, the University of Hard-Knocks. You can read about how to buy a plane everyday until the cows come home, the sunsets, and the moon rises for months—I did—and you’ll still be woefully unprepared for the real world realities.

Here’s the reader’s digest version of the conventional wisdom of plane buying: Define your mission before you shop. Don’t be dissuaded by a pretty face. Do a title search. Pay the big bucks for a pre-buy inspection. Be patient.

I did all that. Here’s how it’s worked out for me:

Mission. Defining your mission means taking a hard look at the kind of flying you really do. It makes no sense to own a six-seat light twin if you generally fly alone in the local area. By the same token, if you need to fly regularly for businesses more than 500 miles from home, a Piper Cub is a bad choice. My mission required a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). My checkbook required an older “legacy” model. I actually read a book, ironically titled Legacy Light Sport Aircraft You Can Afford to Buy and Fly, to help me get a better grip on the options, of which there were seven makes: Aeronca, Ercoupe, Interstate, Luscombe, Piper Cub, Porterfield, or Talyorcraft. The Ercoupe ended up being the best mission-fitting plane. Among the legacy models, I still believe that. But every time something breaks, wears out, or needs to be replaced for any other reason, I can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t have evaluated modern LSAs, too.

I do a lot of wondering about that this time of year.

Moving on. Related to mission definition is avoiding a pretty face. You’d think that a good way to shop for an airplane would be to go to an airport and see what’s for sale, but you’d be wrong. It’s too easy to fall in love with the wrong plane that way. Sensible airplane buying requires a cold heart, and sometimes a cold shower. I did that right. I never met Tessie in the flesh before I made the deal. I defined my mission, spent months trying to find a plane that fit my requirements, made dozens of calls to sellers, and even inked two deals that fell apart (more on that in a minute) before we bought our plane. I had seen pictures, of course, and a pilot friend whose work took him to the part of the country where she was based test flew her for me.

Our title search was fine, and I paid the owner to ferry the plane to a prebuy mechanic. This was the third time I had done that. Two other deals fell apart when deal-killing issues were discovered on the prebuy. I was spending a lot of money on airplane mechanics for a guy who didn’t own an airplane, but I was saving myself from a bigger financial disaster.

Or so I thought.

Yes, I was in a Spock-like zone of logic on this purchase, and cocky-proud of myself. But things broke down on the third prebuy. The highly recommended prebuy guy on this deal missed a ton of potentially deal-killing squawks. Of course, in all fairness he found a ton of things that were fixed to make the sale, too, so maybe it’s just 20-20 hindsight that’s making me bitter.

And patience. Did I get impatient in the end? Maybe, but I think not. I took six months, walked away from two deals when they turned sour, and avoided a dozen others early in the process. I followed the plane-buying checklist to the letter, but discovered in the end that correspondence school is no way to learn about buying an airplane.

You have to attend the U-of-K.

Yes, I’m sorry to tell you that when it comes first-time airplane ownership, you just don’t know what you’re getting into until it’s too late to get out. I know it’s one dollar total I should never look at (much less add up) but when I think about how much money we’ve spent on our old bird I can’t help but wonder if I could have been flying that sexy Sling, who’s siren song hasn’t yet released its hold on my soul. Of course, if I’d known the true cost of owning this plane, I would not have bought her, so it’s not quite relevant. Plus, even a new plane still has required maintenance, so it’s not like you can truly add up all the money you’ve ever spent on an old plane and say you could have applied it to the purchase of a new one. And, even with all the unexpected costs we’ve weathered, we are nowhere near the cost of a brand-spanking new LSA. That will take another couple of years. But the Ghost of Christmas Future has been whispering in my ear about that.

So do I regret buying this plane? Sometimes, for brief periods, yes. And I kick myself for not being smarter. But when my musings turn dark, like today, all I need to do is look at this picture:

DSC_6751 2

And all my dark thoughts fly away on those beautiful wings of white and blue.

Annual angina

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be rich to buy an airplane. The Plane Tales Plane, for instance, cost waaaaaay less than most new cars (and less than many used ones, come to think about it). Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of planes that you do need to be rich to buy, but plane ownership should not be confused with country club membership. It’s not an exclusive club when it comes to airplane ownership. While it’s possible to spend a couple of million on an airplane, there are also planes to be had for ten grand.

I don’t know how airplane owners got the rep of being rich. I really don’t. People don’t assume the guy with the bass boat is rich. Or the neighbor with the big hulking RV in his driveway. People spend their “disposable” income on all kinds of recreational toys than rival or exceed the cost of buying a plane without being accused of being exorbitantly wealthy.

I suspect it’s jealously.

It pisses me off sometimes, although I suspect my wife actually likes the faux status of “rich” that owning a plane confers on us.

Anyway (for myth busting) buying a plane doesn’t require a lot of money, plus if you want to finance, even old planes often have 15-year terms on loans, so you’re not looking at much out-of-pocket each month. And flying a plane isn’t as expensive as you’d think, either, especially if you are careful about the plane you choose. I was admiring a surprisingly cheap for-sale jet warbird in my mechanic’s shop a few months ago, and one of the workers actually snorted, “That thing will burn more gas taxiing out to the end of the runway than your Ercoupe will burn in a year!”


In our case, we usually burn just under five gallons of gas per hour. With Avgas at $4.70 a gallon at our airport, and a small bit of oil thrown in, I fly for about $25 an hour. What else can you possibly do that is this much fun for twenty-five bucks?

But there is one aspect of owning a plane that just plane hurts the pocket book. Oh. Wait. I meant to say just “plain” hurts. And that’s airplane maintenance. Pretty much anything that needs to be done on a plane must be done by licensed mechanics who are able to command fees that make licensed plumbers and licensed electricians look like bargain-basement minimum-wage workers by comparison.

And there is always maintenance to be done on a plane, even when its working perfectly. Federal law requires every plane to undergo an annual inspection every 12 months. An annual is no mere pop-the-hood-and-check-the-oil operation. It’s a major tear-down that peers deep into the plane’s guts to make sure all is working as it should, and that nothing has worn out, worked loose, or fallen off. Even if absolutely nothing is found that needs to be taken care of, my annual runs me a hair over one grand. But annuals can easily run double, triple, quadruple if some “squawks” are found.

Hence my annual angina over my annual. I’m never sure how much it’s going to cost, or how long it will take. (And I start having withdrawal symptoms if I’ve not flown in over a week.) This year, I already know the annual will be more than double of last year’s when the only thing they found wrong was a burned-out light bulb on the right wing. Our funky antique Stromberg carburetor is developing a personality and needs to be sent out to a specialist to be rebuilt, at a cost nearly equal to the annual itself. And our engine needs some work. As does our prop, which is handled by a different kind of licensed airplane mechanic. The left aileron has a bit more play in than I’d like. We have some nose gear shimmy on landing. The vertical speed indictor is off.   There’s a loose rivet on the belly. And on it goes.

(Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pilots… Fer’ God’s sake send them off to plane mechanic school instead!)

Now I know that the older the plane, the cheaper it is to buy, but the more expensive it is to maintain. And the newer the plane, the more expensive it is to buy, but the cheaper it is to maintain. An actuary—like my nephew—would tell you to buy new(er). So why didn’t I? Partly because that wasn’t an option for me, but largely because I had no clue what I was getting into.

Anyway, it’s that time of year again. Next week on Tuesday, weather gods permitting, I’ll fly Tess over the hump of Rowe Mesa into Santa Fe, and turn over the keys and my wallet to my mechanic. Then I’ll have to hitch a ride back to our empty hanger at SXU to pick up my (more expensive than my airplane) Jeep.

The hangar sure is going to feel empty this December while the mechanics are working on Tessie. But I guess that will only serve to remind me that while I may not be rich when it comes to how much money I have in my bank account, my life could not possibly be any richer.


Plane Poverty

People sometimes think that we are rich because we own an airplane. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Owning an airplane absolutely guarantees poverty.

OK, I exaggerate. But unlike what you might expect, buying an airplane is not a terribly expensive undertaking. The Plane Tales Plane cost us quite a bit less than my Jeep Cherokee. Really, buying a plane is no big deal money-wise. Anyone with a job and a desire to own one can do it.

The big costs come in when it actually comes to operating it once you’ve bought it, and those costs really pile up in some unexpected areas. It’s not the day-to-day operating, really. Fuel and oil sound pricy, with aviation gasoline usually around $6.50 a gallon, but Tessie’s old Continental only burns five gallons an hour, so an hour’s flight only costs thirty-two bucks. I’ll bet that’s lots cheaper than many other sorts of recreational activities. What’s the cost of a lift pass at a decent ski resort? Besides, where else can you have this much fun with your clothes on for only $32 per hour?

Of course there are some little things that add to the cost. Hangar rent adds up, and don’t forget the insurance (which also, come to think of it, is still less than I pay State Farm for my Jeep).

But it’s mechanical maintenance that’s the real cost of airplane ownership. It’s costly for any airplane, and even more expensive for an old airplane. Really, it’s the worst of owning an old house and restoring a classic car, with the added complication of being in bed with the Federal government.

Since the summer of 2013, when we bought Tessie, we’ve contributed more to our mechanic’s childrens’ college funds than the damn plane cost in the first place! And this isn’t just a now-and-again thing. It’s an ongoing burden of sorts, because there are very few things that owners are allowed to do to an airplane, repair-wise. We can change oil and light bulbs. I think that’s about it. Oh and we can fix a flat tire. And to make matters worse on our bank account, we are required by Federal Law to pay our mechanics even when nothing needs fixing.

No kidding.

Every year, every airplane in the country is required by federal law to have an “Annual Inspection,” often just called an Annual in the biz. The Annual on the Plane Tales Plane rings the cash register at $1,100. Just for the inspection. God forbid they find anything (and they will) it goes up from there. Annual inspections often become hugely more costly when major issues are found. Even minor problems easily double the cost. Of course, even an expensive repair is cheaper than a funeral, but you can see why plane owners spend a lot of time praying nothing is found when airplanes are in the shop. There’s always a certain sense of pocketbook dread when delivering your plane to its mechanic for the Annual.

What’s this gonna cost me this year?

All pilot owners have a love/hate relationship with their mechanics. We hate the fact they have us over a barrel, so to speak, but we’d hate it even more if something major happened in flight. I’d much rather pay $1,178 to have my mechanic replace some worn aileron rod ends (which I did at the end of July) than have the ailerons fail in flight. That would be bad.

Now in all fairness, an Annual is a very complete inspection. They pull up the floor, go behind the instrument panel, peer into the wings, crawl into the tail, and basically just check every nut, cotter pin, and rivet on the plane. Beyond the look in every nook and cranny inspection, all airplanes have special required inspections based on their type. These are called Airworthiness Directives, or AD’s. These come down to us from the Feds and are often based on accident data. If some poor sod crashes because his wing spars rusted through and snapped off in flight, an AD might be created to make everyone who owns the same make and model of airplane check the plane for rust on the wing spar. Some AD’s are one-time checks. Others are “recurrent,” needing to be done every ten years, every five years, or every year. Older aircraft tend to have more ADs than newer aircraft, of course. Ercoupe 415-CDs have more than their fair share, with a total of 26 ADs. Many of them are time-consuming, and therefore expensive.

So imagine my delight when Steve, my mechanic, called to report that the only thing that they found wrong during Tessie’s Annual was that the right wing-tip navigation light was burned out. Cost: $25 for the bulb, $22.50 for the fifteen minutes it took to change it. And that was it.

I was quite pleased. The old girl had held together great for the last 12 months.

Then the phone rang again. Steve had forgotten to mention that the Emergency Locator Transmitter battery had expired, so he ordered a new one. It would be forty bucks.

OK, so now we have to talk a little about Emergency Locator Transmitters, called ELTs, which since the 1970s, are another federally required piece of gear for all U.S. Airplanes. ELTs are small radios that are designed to send a location signal on the emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz to help rescuers locate your plane if you crash. It sounds like a good idea on paper, but it doesn’t work out very well in the real world, because, as with many mandates, it all began with politics rather than technology.

In the autumn of 1972, House majority leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Congressman Nick Begich of Alaska, and Begich’s aide Russ Brown disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau for a campaign appearance. Despite one of the longest searches in American history—39 days—no trace of the missing plane was ever found. Even to this day, the whereabouts of the (presumed) crash is unknown. The more important you are, the longer they look, you understand. If I disappear in the Plane Tales Plane I have no expectation of a search lasting for more than a few days.

Anyway, Congress, having lost two of their own, moved quickly to solve the problem and made ELT’s mandatory. While this sounds sensible in theory, there were problems with the technology. Hard landings tended to set them off. Crashes tended to not set them off. And once activated, the signals tended to bounce around. They were hard to trace. In short, they weren’t doing much good. In the end, there were so many expensive false alarms that the satellites that monitored the frequencies were turned off. The only time anyone searches for ELT signals now is when a plane is reported missing.

The powers that be wanted to mandate newer and better technologies but the pilot and aircraft owner’s lobbies fought back against blanket mandates that required yet more expenses for every aircraft owner, when the ELT didn’t make sense for every mission. “We” won and the old law stayed put.

So today, we have the old mandate that we must have a piece of equipment that isn’t monitored and probably won’t work when we need it, and the option of getting some very expensive gear that is helpful. In fact, if you have enough cash, you can get a GPS ELT that will inform emergency services not only where you are within a few feet, but the type of plane, her “N” number, and the home phone number of the owner. When we thought we were going to be in the rental biz, we discussed the value of this kind of gear as a service to our renters, but when our deal fell through and we ended up just being garden-variety plane owners (who had already spent double in renovation costs what the plane that now couldn’t earn her keep cost to buy) we decided to just equip ourselves with a garden-variety Personal Locator Beacon for our safety, and kept the old ELT for compliance.

The only reason I’m telling you all of this is that a week later, the phone rang again. Some bad news. Steve and the boys had put the new battery in the old ELT and it didn’t work. Somehow, in the course of the year, the worthless (but required) battery-powered radio had died of old age. No one repairs them anymore. They are still made, surprisingly, but shockingly cost six hundred clams. Steve thought the money might more sensibly be put toward some tech that might actually help someone find us if we had the bad luck to go down.

The newer systems are not that much more than six hundred bucks, but involve a more complex, time consuming—and therefore expensive—installation. It would also add several pounds in weight to an already underpowered and heavy plane. And to add insult to injury, once opened, the $40 battery for our dead ELT could not be returned.

As it was legal for me to fly for a month or two without the ELT, probably because everyone knows it won’t help much anyway, Steve suggested he just log it as inoperable pending repair or replacement and give me some time to sleep on it.

I flew home to SXU and at the dinner table that night Rio, Grandma Jean, and I kicked around our options while we waited for Debs to get home from work. On a whim, I checked eBay and found that a twin of our ELT was up for auction. Eight minutes remained. There were two bidders nickel and diming each other slowly upwards in the $20 range. The seller said it had no battery and he didn’t know if it worked or not. We had a battery that worked and an ELT that didn’t. If the seller’s ELT worked, and we won it, it would be a cheap solution to our problem. Of course, the downside was that if we won it and it didn’t work we’d be the proud owners of one battery that worked and two ELT transmitters that didn’t. Rio pointed out that if we bought it and it didn’t work we could use it as a paperweight. I said that we already had an ELT paperweight and couldn’t see the need for a pair. At the time, I guess it never occurred to us that they would make a fine pair of aviation accident-themed bookends.

Still, in the moment, we could see that this could be one hell of a sweet solution. Yes, this type of transmitter is next to worthless, but it keeps us legal and wouldn’t change a thing for us. We’d been flying with this type of ELT from day one and never really worried about it.

With four minutes remaining, in a quick council of war we decided to risk a total of $100 on as many ELTs as we could win on eBay in an effort to get a working one, and at that point we’d consider it throwing good money after bad and we’d give up and join the modern world. I programed a snipe of $46.99, following my superstition of always adding an extra $1.99 to whatever I’ve decided I’m willing to pay for something. (My only other superstition is the one about an empty wallet given as a gift always staying empty. In fact, right before we bought Tessie someone gave me an empty wallet…)

The three of us huddled around our iPad mini and watched the auction countdown in real time. In the last six seconds, our snipe swooped down from on high and strafed the other bidders. The price turned green, indicating that we were the winners at $40.05, plus another $12 for shipping and handling.

A week later the ELT showed up. It looked like the one that should have been on Congressman Bogg’s missing plane. It was battered and scratched. The screws were rusty. It rattled when I shook it.

This wasn’t looking good for the home team.

But we’d come this far. We might as well go the rest of the way. I unscrewed the rusty screws to pull the battery cover off of the back of the battered yellow box. Inside I found the source of the rattle: A pair of plastic wire nuts to attach the lead wires from the sealed transmitter to the battery. The wires, however, had been cut. I tired to re-strip the red positive lead with a razor blade. The plastic was brittle and on the first attempt I cut the wire. Damn! It was a mistake I couldn’t afford to make a second time. I had less than an inch of wire to play with.

Proceeding with painful slowness, I re-stripped the red lead again, this time with success. Then I stripped the black negative lead, it going faster from experience, and by some miracle not cutting my fingers in the process. The wire nuts that had been housed in the ELT like peas in a pod were as sad-looking as the ELT itself, so I used a new pair.

“I have to say that I’m not overly optimistic about our prospects for success here,” Rio said. Yeah, I told him, I’m keeping my hopes down, too.

It was 5:45 in the evening. ELT’s can be tested for the first five minutes after the hour, every hour. When we discussed it the week before, Rio worried what would happen if a plane had the misfortune to crash at the top of the hour. Would no one search for it? Never minding that ELT frequencies aren’t even monitored by satellite anymore, I assured him that in theory it would stay on and anyone still hearing the call for help by a quarter after the hour would investigate.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

We watched the clock. It’s amazing how slowly 15 minutes can pass.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

At 5:59 pm Rio turned on our Sporty’s SP-400 hand-held aviation transceiver, and adjusted the squelch and the volume. At 6:00 pm he double-checked the atomic clock in the master bedroom and assured me we were legal. At 6:01 pm I flipped the test switch on the battered yellow box. A yellow light nestled behind the five-G impact spring switch started slowly winking and from the radio’s speaker came a desperate rapid-fire signal. Erie. Spooky. Not quite Adam 12. Not quite Ghost Busters.


The damn thing actually worked!

“Wow!” Rio squeaked Rio, “The damn thing actually works!”

Score one for the home team.

Yeah, sometimes people think that we are rich because we own an airplane—and they are right. But it has nothing to do with how much money we have in the bank, which thanks to airplane ownership is actually a heck of a lot less than it used to be! Instead, we are rich in our adventures, our experiences, our family bonds, and our little victories. In all of those things we have wealth in spades, thanks to our airplane, which has been worth every penny. Still, I’m praying that Steve doesn’t find so much as a burnt-out light bulb next year!