Will Work for Red Bull

Last year, Lisa, Rio, and I went undercover. Twice. Well, once and a half, come to think of it. Here’s the Tale: As part of our General Aviation News series on air racing, we covered the National Air Races at Reno, and the grand finale of the Red Bull World Championship—which last year was held at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At Reno we had legitimate press credentials, but we also joined the exclusive Checkered Flag Club as full members.

So that was the one-half undercover. Why did we do that?

Well, while Rio covered the race pits and Lisa shot the race action from out on the pylons and on the ramp, the focus for my pen was on the race experience of spectators—especially the value of clubs like Reno’s Checkered Flag. Hence our memberships.

Then, for Red Bull, I decided to compare their Sky Lounge to Reno’s Checkered Flag Club. So the whole family went undercover with me to experience it, with none of us appling for press credentials. In hindsight, I probably should have written a single compare-and-contrast story, as the formula was somewhat the same and drew some negative feedback from readers, but going that route would have made for an article longer than any modern publication would run, what with reader attention spans getting shorter and shorter with each passing year.

Anyway, this year, exclusive clubs being out of the budget with all the repairs to Race 53, we applied for proper press credentials for the Red Bull. (We missed Reno altogether as AOPA’s Santa Fe regional fly-in was the same weekend. Really, who the heck schedules a fly-in the same weekend as the National Air Races???!) Anyway, Lisa and I were accepted by Red Bull, but poor Rio was rejected because he’s a teenager. This was especially embittering to him as his first published photo was of a Red Bull Air Race. And we wonder why we can’t get teens interested in aviation… But that’s a story for another day.

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Still, Rio likes the Red Bull Air Races as a spectator as well, so he decided to come with us to watch from the stands while Lisa and I did the press thing. On the drive out, as we were—I kid you not—drinking Red Bulls, we wondered if the Red Bull folks would give free Red Bull drinks to the press. You see, as members of the Sky Lounge last year, we had full access to all-you-can-drink complimentary Red Bull. In fact, that’s what got us hooked on the stupid caffeinated energy drink in the first place. Prior to last year, none of us were Red Bull drinkers. Now, Red Bull is only trumped by Red Wine in our diets, which come to think of it, also flowed freely at the Sky Lounge.

But I digress. On one hand, it seemed like throwing Red Bulls at the press would be a smart thing to do. It couldn’t cost Red Bull much, and a happy press is more likely to give, well, good press, right? On the other hand, most outfits don’t do much for the media. Reno? They give the press water and granola bars.

Well, when we got to Ft. Worth, not only did we discover that the 60-odd credentialed media got free all-we-could-drink Red Bull, but we also had an awesome perch above the Sky Lounge on the 9thfloor of the swanky Speedway Club, giving us a stunning view of the race course.

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The race planes zoomed into Gate 4 actually below us, then screamed up into their vertical turn maneuvers right beside the press centre. It may not have been all that great for the photographers (shooting though glass is a problem) but for writers like me it was awesome. Although, I think I was the only real writer there. Most of the media folks were shooters or video folks. Anyway, the press box also had catered breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. If I had wanted to, I could have covered the entire event in absolute comfort. All I was missing was alcohol.

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Needless to say, a great view, free food, and a forecast for race day of temperatures in the 40s got Rio’s temperature up even more over the lack of press recognition. Meanwhile, the press passes Lisa and I had gave us access to most of the venue, including a brief time set aside for to interview the racers in the pits, and roof access for photographers above race control. We also got a tour of race control and had the opportunity to go inside one of the inflatable pylons.

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You can check out our coverage in the next GA News, but back to the Red Bull part of this Red Bull story. We drank five sugar free Red Bulls coming out. That was all the dollar store had left in inventory. Looking at all those coolers and mini-fridges full of Red Bull, and selfishly thinking about my upcoming airplane repair bills, I told Lisa, “We should be sure to grab a few cans for the trip back home.” So every time I knew I was going to pass the car in the media parking lot on my various travels back and forth across the grounds over the next couple of day, I’d grab a few and toss them into the trunk.

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Lisa did the same. There were a lot of coats and what not in the trunk and I didn’t realize how many of the blue and silver cans were piling up until it got cold and I needed every jacket we brought.

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Oh my. Feeling a bit guilty, I asked our press contacts just how many cans of Red Bull that Red Bull gives away each race season, figuring I could justify our “sampling program” by being an infinitesimal drop in a larger ocean. The media folks didn’t know, but promised to get with the marketing folks, who got back with the media folks, who got back with us that this information is a trade secret.

Well, there are no secrets here at Plane Tales, so if the marketing department is trying to figure out why five times more sugar-free Red Bulls were drunk by the press on a few cold days in Ft. Worth than at any other race in the series, we’re the guilty parties.

But, I suspect it will work out for Red Bull in the long run. If we got hooked by a few freebies last year, can you imagine what this stash will do to us?

I can see us now. Sitting on the street corner across from their Corporate HQ in Fuschl am See in Austria, sporting a hand-written sign on cardboard: Addicted and homeless. WILL WORK FOR RED BULL.

 

Happiest of Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving! OK. Yeah, right. I know Thanksgiving Day was really yesterday, so I guess I need to say either happy Thanksgiving +1, or happy belated T-day. Either way, as this is the regular publication day closest to the big day, I decided to use it for my T-day post

Today, of course, is actually the oddly named “Black Friday,” and you might expect that with Tess in the Airplane Hospital for extensive repairs after our October mishap, and considering the fact that there’s not been much flying happening in this flying family over the last year, I might be in a mood to match the name of the day today.

But that’s not the case.

First, for anyone who missed the memo, Tess will fly again. The cost of repairs is nearly as much as she cost in the first place, but given all the upgrades we’d undertaken, I had insured her for more. It was a bit of a drawn-out process, with at one point an AIG insurance adjuster complaining to me that “it’s such an old airplane,” to which I bit my tongue and didn’tsay, “Well we sure pulled the wool over your eyes on the plane’s age when you insured it, didn’t we?”

But repairs are now finally underway, so that’s good news, and a huge relief. Of course, it won’t be fast. As we speak, Tess is back in Santa Fe, looking more a wreck than an airplane. Everything forward of the firewall is gone. The prop and cowl are off, the engine dangles on a crane like the corpse of a hanged convict, and the bent engine mount lies on the floor to one side.

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Next, dozens of rivets need to be drilled out to remove large skin panels between the firewall and the front of her wings on each side, exposing the bent stringers—metal supports that run nose to tail—that need to be replaced. New skins need to be cut and formed to the proper shape and riveted onto the fresh stringers. Then a brand new engine mount must be attached and the engine re-hung, which entails reconnecting all the disconnected plumbing and electrical wires. And of course, her main landing gear needs to be reconstructed, as well. This is going to be a loooooong process.

Adding to the potential triggers of a black mood, the next hospital bed over from Tess at the Airplane Hospital is occupied by my second favorite flying machine—Lisa’s boy Warbler. Ironically, Lisa decided to hangar him in Las Cruces for the Ercoupe Nationals, rather than park him on the ramp. I say ironically, because rather than giving shelter as a hangar should, Warbler got damaged by Lisa’s bid to protect him from damage. You see, the FBO hired a guy to paint the hangar, and the painter guy decided there was no reason to take the planes out of the hangar before he sprayed paint all over the place.

Warbler’s glass was destroyed. All of it. The windshield, side doors, top door, back windows. Thousands of pin prick-sized melted pockets in the plexi.

So there’s plenty to be in a black mood about for Black Friday. But instead, I’ve used the downtime to count my blessings. Other than becoming much poorer since becoming an airplane-owning family (and who’s to say we wouldn’t have just pissed the money away on something else, anyway?), and being occasionally stressed out, the airplane has been nothing but healthy dividends on the investment—at least with the proper perspective.

Tessie has changed all our lives. She’s taken us to beautiful places where we’ve had amazing adventures and met fabulous people. It’s only been a few short years—half a dozen if I’m counting right—but it seems like forever. I don’t really have a clear sense of “pre-Tess.” It seems like she’s been part and parcel of the family forever.

For that, I’m thankful this Thanksgiving season. Thankful for the flights of beauty and fun over these past few years, and Thankful that my future promises many more.

 

One hell of a crunch

The ink was still wet on my Private Pilot’s license back in the spring of 1980 when I rolled the Piper Archer onto final for Runway 03 at KDRO southeast of Durango, Colorado. I was wearing my new headset, the first one I ever purchased. Not a sensible one, mind you. Not one that would help reduce the din in a cockpit installed behind the ultimate noise maker. No. The one I bought was a one-ear, corporate jet pilot-style headset with a skinny boom mike.

It wasn’t practical, but, damn, I looked good wearing it.

It also featured something totally new to me: A push-to-talk switch that attached to the yoke with a piece of Velcro. Prior to that, all my aviation radio experience was using CB radio-style microphones that hung on a clip at the bottom of the panel.

The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: The runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Rather, it was a dozen feet lower. As the plane lost lift, instead of softly kissing the asphalt, it dropped sickeningly from the sky with a rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late. I gripped the yoke tightly, accidently triggering the new push-to-talk switch and, as the plane hit the pavement with teeth jarring effect, broadcast the word “Crunch” for the whole world to hear.

It’s one of those things people never let you live down.

Fast forward to last week. After an hour or so of flying Tess for the pure joy of plying the sky, I was returning to my home base. It was late morning as the clouds were lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed, hanging low to the ground for hours after the sun rose. But now they were small, widely scattered, and high. The wind was light from the south. There were a few bumps, but nothing to write home about.

I rolled onto final for Runway 19. The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: Someone had moved the runway.

At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with. After more than 782 hours flying this airplane, I somehow set up my worst landing since 1980. Instead of softly kissing the asphalt, Tessie dropped sickeningly from the sky with that rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late.

She slammed down on the pavement with teeth jarring effect. I heard a double crunch from the landing gear, left and right. Felt the punch. Up the gear strut, across the main spar, up into the seat, and through my spine. Then Tess sprang back into the air before dizzyingly falling to earth a second time, for a second pair of crunches. A second pair of seismic shocks. Again, I was catapulted into the air. Power now fully up, she wallowed for a moment, then regained her airplane pride and shot down the runway, slowly gaining altitude. I banked wide and slow, coming back over the runway to reassure myself that I hadn’t left any parts of my landing gear behind, then came around into the pattern and landed again. Which, with two bounces, I guess was the third landing of the day. This time the runway was where it was supposed to be and Tess kissed the pavement softly.

I taxied to the apron and shut down. The latent reverberation of the pair of heavy hits still quivering in my spine, I thanked the ghost of designer Fred Weick for his decision to build the ‘Coupe with robust trailing link landing gear. I slid the door down into the belly, climbed out onto the right wing and dropped to the ground. I ducked under the wing and inspected the gear. It looked fine. Irrationally, I looked up at the bottom of the wing. Nope. No dents in the wing from the gear. I moved around to the other side. It was fine, too. Then I looked to the nose gear.

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

I stared dumbfounded at my nose wheel faring, which appeared to have been nearly shot away by Arab terrorists.

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What… the… hell…?

But that was only the beginning. The big story wasn’t the blown-out back of the faring. No, the big story was at the other end. The very tip of the nose faring was chipped away. Hardly damage worth looking at, it took me a few minutes to process the cause: My own propeller had taken a bite out of the faring.

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I stood to one side and studied the back of my spinner. It wasn’t parallel with the nose, a sure sign of an issue with the engine mounts. Over time, the rubber mounts tend to compress from the weight of the engine and need to be replaced, but these are only six months old. Still, I popped open the cowl, and sure enough, the engine mounts had collapsed. I guess the impact of the hard landing squashed them like bugs. I could feel my wallet getting lighter by the moment.

I had no idea.

The prop now clear of the nose faring, I taxied back to my hanger and emailed my mechanic, who in addition to being an A&P, holds the prestigious IA, or Inspection Authority. I let him know what happened and sent him photos. Then more photos. Then more photos still. He judged the plane safe to ferry. Two days later, I delivered Tess to the two men I had been hoping not to see for a few months, and they got to work. They meticulously inspected the inside of the engine compartment, looking at the firewall for wrinkles (none), each joint of the engine mount for cracks (none), and who knows what else. Then they got to work changing the mounts, discovering in the process that I’d managed to bend the robust pair of bolts in the bottom mounts.

Quite the crunch.

When it was all done, the spinner back still wasn’t perfectly parallel to the cowl, suggesting one of two possibilities: Either it never was, or the entire engine mount had been bent. My guys told me to fly for a while and see if the trim, handling, or speed had changed.

I flew home.

Now we have to detour into envy for a minute, before the rest of the story unfolds. My hangar neighbor, Lisa, has a very different hangar from mine. My hangar has a largely gravel floor, with only a small square of concreate for the plane’s landing gear to perch on. I have some power plugs. But no lights. None of this ever bothered me.

Until Lisa moved in next door.

You see, her hangar has wall-to-wall concrete, and bright, wonderful lights on the ceiling. It’s also insulated. Apparently, at some point in the distant past, NASA used to launch weather balloons from our airport, and they upgraded one of the hangars. NASA is now gone and the upgraded hangar is Warbler’s nest.

I never needed lights until I spent some time in Lisa’s hangar. But not wanting to attempt to install many banks of fluorescent tubes twenty feet off the ground (I know my limits… sometimes), I purchased some work lights on a tripod from Home Depot while the guys were changing the engine mounts on Tess. After landing, I set up the tripod, attached the lights, and plugged them in. My hangar was filled with soft, warm, wonderful halogen-fueled light. It was so stunningly beautiful I decided to pull up a chair and simply soak in the view.

And that’s when I saw it.

Actually, at first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. An artifact of light, shadow, and reflection. Forward of the wing root was a perfect triangular depression in Tessie’s aluminum skin.

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Eventually, concern trumped entropy, and I rose from my chair, aided by my lightened wallet, and made my way to the plane. I softly ran my fingers along her side and sickeningly felt them side deeply into the depression. This was no trick of the light.

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.

 

Death by a thousand pinpricks

It must be a misprint. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. I take my glasses off, rub my eyes, put my glasses back on, and look at the PDF on the tiny screen of my iPhone again. Using my fingers, I zoom in on the bottom line of the invoice from my mechanic.

Yes.

There really are two numbers to the left of the comma. The six week-long annual inspection has resulted in a mind numbing, stomach churningly large bill. More the type of number that you’d expect for an engine rebuild, than for a simple annual. And about five times more than I had expected.

How the @#&% did it cost that much?

I scan through the two itemized pages. It’s a mix of self-inflicted injuries (things I decided to do that didn’t strictly needed to be done), things that had to be done (and could no longer be put off), and new discoveries (that had to be fixed to remain airworthy).

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None of them, really, were wildly expensive in and of themselves. No. Wait. That’s not true. Everything about airplane maintenance could correctly be called “wildly expensive.” So it would be more accurate to say that none of these things, by themselves, were more expensive than I’d expect them to be. It’s just that there were a boatload of them.

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The (expected) biggie was the rebuilding of the pilot side fuel tank. I more or less knew what that would cost, having done the tank on the other side last year. What I’d forgotten about, however, was the cost of removing it, sending it out, getting it sent back, painting it, and re-installing it. But at least now, with both wing tanks rebuilt and the header tank replaced, my fuel system problems are a thing of the past, and unlikely to need to be addressed ever again, at least in my lifetime.

The (unexpected) biggie was the discovery of a worn down area on the engine mount that was so thin that a fabric-testing probe could be poked through it. Also unexpected was an increase in both the base cost of the annual itself and in the shop rate charged by my wrench turners.

In the self-inflicted, but more expensive that I thought it would be department, was the removal of the new digital engine monitor and its replacement with conventional gauges. I’ve had nothing but trouble with the stupid thing in the limited flying I’ve done between maintenance headaches since we put it in, and finally the manufacturer graciously offered to refund my money, an offer I jumped on. I figured the refund would more than cover the cost of the conventional instruments to replace it, and it did. But I hadn’t understood that the instruments didn’t include the needed leads and probes to make them work, gadgets which ended up doubling the cost of each dial. Nor had I understood just how damn long it would take my crew to remove the digital system, apparently a full seven hours at 95 smackeroos per hour; or how long it would take to hook up the replacements, apparently eight full hours at 95 smackeroos per hour. (I’d never known why dollars are sometimes called smackeroos until right now: Sometimes money can just smack you across the face!)

Another self-inflicted injury was my attitude towards my attitude indictor. A few years back we put in a digital one, but it reflects all manner of light in our greenhouse of an airplane, and can’t be read more than half the time. As I was pulling out the digital engine monitor anyway, which in addition to a host of other problems, also suffered from the glare issue, I decided to get all the computerized glass panel crap out of the plane and go back to the humble “steam gauges” that I’ve known and loved for years. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a total hissy fit, and I haven’tcompletely lost my mind, I’m still navigating by GPS on my iPad…) I was delighted that I was able to sell the glass attitude indicator for a good price, but still, its traditional replacement wasn’t cheap, and again, there were fees for pulling the old one out and putting the new one in the same hole.

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But, really, most of the bill was little things. Four spark plug gaskets for $4.50, re-timing of the right mag at $23.75…

$47.50 to patch yet another crack in the nose bowl…

$15.00 for an air filter…

And on it went…

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It was death by a thousand pinpricks. But except for the actual writing of the check, at least it’s all over now.

Well, until next year.

 

Officially not good

If you’ve ever been out to a small airport, you might have noticed that there are always a lot of pilots hanging around talking to each other about flying, and you might wonder why they aren’t just out flying instead.

It’s probably because their planes are in the shop, where it seems ours spends half her time recently.

To recap: In July of last year we put in a new engine. Well, three new engines. That took until late November to straighten out.

Then we spent all of December pitching, un-pitching, and re-pitching the prop so it would work with Engine III.

January Tess developed oil incontinence; and in February the header tank sprung a leak. Into the cockpit.

March it was throttle issues. Now in April, one month before our annual (Again? Seriously?) this happened:

Yeah, the exhaust pipe isn’t supposed to move like that. Actually, it’s really not supposed to move at all. In this case our muffler has come loose, and as it flaps around, it’s torn the carb heat connections loose, too. What does all that mean?

It means at least a theoretical risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for anyone in the plane when the engine is running, and a more than theoretical risk that the carb heat system will fail when it’s needed most. And those two things together add up to mandatory maintenance.

And as I could see that the cowl would have to come off to work on this newest problem, it made more sense to me to move the dreaded annual up a few weeks than to pay for two rounds of maintenance within a month’s time.

So off to the shop I must go, and then, because I won’t be flying for a while, I guess I’ll just hang out and talk with the other pilots.

The one’s whose planes are being worked on, too.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Eureka!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ten.

Fifteen.

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

Twenty-five.

Thirty.

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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.

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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.

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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?

$1,284.00

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.

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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.