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.
“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing
“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.
There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”
“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.
I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.
Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.
An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.
But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”
Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!
Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.
So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.
I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:
So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.
Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.
What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?
It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.
Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.
Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.
The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.
After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.
Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.
This is his update of Tessie’s current look:
I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.
He also created a slightly more whimsical version:
And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:
I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:
The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:
I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.
I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.
I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”
I was crushed.
Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.
So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.
Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.
Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.
Yay! The plane is done. The day is beautiful, and this afternoon Rio and I launch on a four-day adventure. We’re flying the Route 66 Air Tour, joining a fleet of 20-30 airplanes following the historic “mother road” across New Mexico and into Arizona. We’ve just been through a major maintenance event, but I’m confident the one-hour solo flight home will serve as an adequate test flight to ensure that all is in order.
Debs, Grandma Jean, and Rio are at home assembling chicken salad sandwiches for a pre-Tour party at our airport (more about that next week) so Lisa is driving me the hour and a quarter over to Santa Fe to pick up the plane. It’s my second trip over in as many days. She’ll drop me off and head to SXU by car, where we’ll rendezvous in the late morning. My job is to prepare Tess for her adventure and to get the giant silver quasi-antique 40-cup coffee pot brewing. Once Lisa shows up, and I’ll easily beat her to Santa Rosa, we are to lay out the cookies that the city council authorized the airport manager to buy onto trays in an attractive and creative manner.
After the required small talk with my mechanics, the giant hangar doors rumble open and my chief mechanic uses his fancy-pants multi-adjustable tow bar to grab Tess’s nose gear and pull her out into the sun. It’s a perfect flying morning. Not a breath of wind. I do a quick walk around, and assured that all is as it should be, I mount the wing, step down into the cockpit and settle in for the flight.
My only real worry is the flow of fuel between Tessie’s three tanks. I plan to watch the fuel gauge on the new header tank like a hawk to ensure its being kept full by the engine-driven fuel pump as designed, and that the excess fuel is properly overflowing and draining back into the conjoined wing tanks; an invisible process that can only be monitored by proxy, using the compass-style float gauge on the floor of the plane.
If all goes well, I’ll be back to my homebase in a little over an hour. If all goes poorly I’ve got plenty of time, and fuel, to get back to Santa Fe.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I set a pen and a piece of paper on the seat next to me to copy down my taxi clearance, then plug in my headset. As it’s been a few weeks since I last flew Tess, I pull the engine start checklist from the right-hand side pocket and follow it.
Parking brake engaged. Check.
Fuel cutoff open. Check.
Master switch on. Check.
Beacon on. Check.
Crack the throttle a quarter inch. Check.
Push the mixture control full forward. Check.
Ensure the carb heat knob is full forward. Check.
Turn the ignition switch to both. Check.
Clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor. Check.
Give her two shots of prime. Check!
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. At once the new-old tachometer goes crazy, the needle jumping up and down like a seismograph station when the big one hits the San Andres.
Well, that’s not right. I fiddle with the throttle, advancing it, and retarding it to no avail.
I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal “bat switches” (so called because they look like miniature baseball bats) that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Each has a satisfactory solid movement as it’s flipped downwards to its off position. Radio: Thunk. 12-volt power: Thunk. Navigation lights: Thunk… I unlatch my seatbelt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke. Then show them the quick loop of video I shot on my iPhone of the new-old tach.
“It worked fine when we tested it,” they say.
The new-old tach is the one that was originally in the plane, but was removed when we (foolishly) purchased a modern digital engine monitor, which has been nothing but a pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned. I decided to get it to help us better protect our expensive new engine, but it added to the delays that cost us the last race season, plus I find it hard to read in flight, I miss all of my simple old gauges that told me in a half-glance the status of my engine, but most of all I miss the tach.
The engine monitor has a tach, but it’s small and hyper sensitive. It jumps around a lot even when the throttle is rock solid, and I’ve found it impossible to use to get the right power settings for landing. I tried for some time, and finally decided to just re-install the analog tach to make landing operations safer and easier.
But now, in its maiden re-installation, it has gone crazy. Tony, the number two mechanic, heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “It’s a pretty simple system. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane, pulling the canopy halves partway up to protect myself from the prop blast, then double check that the parking brake is engaged. Fuel cutoff open… master switch on… beacon on… crack the throttle a quarter inch… push the mixture control full forward… ensure the carb heat knob is full forward… turn the ignition switch to both… clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor… give her half-shot of prime for a warm engine…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button. The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion.
The tach behaves itself. Oh well, what’s one little glitch? After all, they had to pretty much disconnect everything in the plane to get the old tank out and the new one in. I give Tony a “thumbs up” and he heads back into the hangar.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I put on my headset and dial up the Santa Fe ATIS, which stands for Automated Terminal Information Service, a pre-recorded audio loop that gives pilots basic information on airport operations: The wind conditions, the active runway, and more.
I’m greeted with complete silence.
Well, not complete silence, with the engine running there’s always a dull roar in the cockpit, even with the best of headsets. But I’m not receiving any radio signals. I double check. Yeah, I’ve entered the frequency right. I poke at the intercom buttons. I fuss with the volume button on my headset. I pull out the head set plugs, and push them in again.
Well, crud. I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal bat switches that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Radio, 12 volt, Navigation lights, Thunk… thunk… thunk… I unlatch my seat belt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. Again. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke.
It’s not quite so funny this time.
Once again Tony heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Another short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “I think the plug was loose. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane. No need to start the plane to test this problem. I flip the master switch on, then the radio control switch. I hold the headset up to one ear and hear, “Santa Fe information Papa, time sixteen forty five Zulu…”
I nod to Tony and give him a thumbs up again.
“Now don’t be coming back here again,” Tony teases me.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight.
Parking brake engaged, fuel cutoff open, turn the master switch, flip on the beacon, crack the throttle a quarter inch, push the mixture control full forward, ensure the carb heat knob is full forward, turn the ignition switch to both, clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor, give her a half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Time to get this party started!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi, then I engage my Cloudahoy App to record the flight and start to taxi. I notice the GPS link in the App hasn’t turned green yet. I also notice that on my Garmin Pilot Navigation system I’m not moving. I slow down and look at my transponder.
It says “MSG.”
That can’t be good. I call ground control and ask for permission to return to the ramp.
I pull back up in front of my mechanic’s hangar and I shut the engine down. I close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the bat switches. Thunk… thunk… thunk… Unlatch seat belt, slide shoulder out and unbutton canopy. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in.
“Seriously?” they ask me.
I text Lisa: Third time, assuredly, will be the charm. Keep driving.
This one is more complicated. The coaxial cable has pulled out of its plug. My guys don’t have the magic tool needed to fix it. I text home to tell Rio to search the flight lounge cabinets for our old dash-top GPS unit. I’m not going to let a little thing like no navigation system spoil our adventure. In the meantime, my guys call the avionics shop on the other side of the field, who agree to send someone right over.
I pass the time in my mechanic’s office, in out of the cold late morning air, surfing eBay on my iPad. After what seems like forever, once again, Tess is pronounced ready for flight.
Parking brake, fuel cutoff, master, beacon, throttle, mixture, carb heat, ignition, fuel warning, give her half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Third time is the charm!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi. Everything is working fine. The new-old tach is behaving, I can hear and talk on the radio, and my nav system is alive. I taxi back toward the runway again, scanning the instrument panel for anything out of the ordinary.
Everything looks good. I do my run up and tell the tower I’m ready to rock and roll. They advise me a larger plane is on long final, but the tower controller clears me for takeoff, adding, “Do not hesitate, early turnout approved.” Hell yeah, I’ve just been given permission to have some fun.
I throttle up to full power as I turn onto the runway, foot never touching the brake. Tess surges forward, she has fuel to get home and nothing else onboard. As she leaps into the air I bank left, and barely higher than the tower, fly up over the south ramp, studying the planes parked in neat rows.
It’s good to be back in the air, even if it’s a few hours later than I expected. It’s surprisingly calm air, the engine sounds strong and smooth, and all the repairs seem to be holding. I reach up to the engine monitor and scroll to the secondary screen. Amps and volts good. I scroll to the fuel computer. It shows me that I have fuel enough to reach Hawaii.
That seems improbable.
I check the fuel flow. The gauge is reporting one gallon per hour, not our usual five and a half. I know this is wrong. But what could be causing it? I lift one earphone clear of my head. A blast of sound assaults me. Nothing wrong with the engine. If I were venting fuel above the sensor, the engine would be starved. I look at the fuel gauge on the floor. It’s steady. The float gauge in the new header tank is riding high. Like most of the rest of the repairs today, it must be a wire not hooked up right.
Do I go on or go back? A deep sigh. I’m only ten miles out; I’m going to have to take the plane back to the mechanics at some point anyway. It might as well be now. I bank into a right-hand 180 and dial my radio back to the Santa Fe tower to tell them I’m coming back.
I land, taxi back to my mechanics and park right in front of their hangar doors. Engine shut down. Fuel valve. Bat switches. Seat belt. Shoulder belt. Canopy. Up and out.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in. They guys aren’t happy to see me.
“Each time you come back it takes longer to fix,” sighs Tony. I tell him the problem and he gathers his tools and his flashlight.
I text Lisa: Wouldn’t you know it? More trouble. Keep driving.
Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.
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?
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.
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.
Remember last week when I told you that, as always with airplanes, there was a problem? Well, at risk of turning Plane Tales into the aviation version of Bob Vila’s This Old House TV series, today I have yet another Plane Problem tale.
It all started when we bought the airplane. No really, today’s feature attraction is one I’ve known about, and have been putting off, since 2013.
But before we can dig into the latest money-eater, for background you need to know that Tessie has three fuel tanks. There’s one in each wing, which is where airplane gas tanks are normally found. Somewhat uniquely, Tess’s are interconnected with no fuel selector, making the pair act like one large gas tank. Even more uniquely, there’s a fuselage tank in the nose of the plane between the engine and the instrument panel. This makes some people nervous, with all that gas in their laps, but in truth, all airplanes are just flying gasoline bombs anyway, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I regard my fuselage tank as a great safety feature due to the way the entire fuel system is designed.
Here’s the deal: An engine-driven fuel pump draws gas up from the conjoined wing tanks and into the nose tank, which I generally call a “header” tank. Gas is then gravity-fed down to the carburetor. The fuel pump draws more gas than the engine uses, and the header tank has an overflow tube that leads back down to the wing tanks again.
Think of it like one of those chocolate fountains you see at weddings.
What makes this arrangement safe, or safer than virtually any other low wing airplane, is the fact that the engine doesn’t need the fuel pump to run. If the fuel pump conks out, the header tank can keep the engine running for an hour. In other low wing planes, if the fuel pump kicks the bucket, the engine shuts down (which is why many planes have backup fuel pumps, but I’m a great believer in catastrophic chains of failure).
So speaking of gas, pretty much since day one—or maybe it was day two—there’s been a slight odor of gas in Tess’s cockpit. My mechanics checked all the usual suspects, looking at the priming system, checking the fuel cutoffs, and making sure all the various connectors were well connected.
All was well.
Looking closer, in every nook and cranny, they finally discovered the cause: An itsy bitsy fuel seep. The header tank was oozing fuel. As pulling out the header tank pretty much entails gutting the interior of the airplane to remove it (or so we all thought at the time), which would take a ton of time, and therefore cost me a ton of money, my mechanics had little trouble convincing me to put this off. Sure, when you first opened the canopy when the plane had been sitting for a while, there’d be a whiff of fuel, but it quickly dissipated and wasn’t an issue.
Once we got Tess back from her months-looooong engine misadventures, I noticed that the fuel smell was worse. Much worse. When opening the canopy, a nauseating wave of fuel fumes poured forth. On our return flight from Texas on our engine break-in flight, I got a pounding headache from the fumes. When I took her in for her new engine’s first oil change, at ten flight hours, I insisted that my mechanics investigate.
Nothing new was amiss.
Meanwhile, the smell was now so strong I wondered if gas were dripping out and soaking into the carpet. My guys suggested I cover the floor with white paper between flights to see if the paper was stained when I came back.
Still, I knew the fumes had to be coming from that damn tank, somehow. And that, all evidence to the contrary, things were getting worse. I also kicked myself for not insisting that the tank be pulled and rebuilt during the long downtime of the engine rebuild. I vowed to get it taken care of once and for all at our next annual, which due to all the work that’s been done, has now been reset to the month of May.
That was at the end of November. Just the other day I was back again at my maintenance base in Santa Fe for the second oil change on the new engine. That’s when one of my guys said, “Come over here, I want you to see something.”
It’s never a good thing when an airplane mechanic wants you to see something.
Like a condemned man being led to gallows, I followed him around Tess’s nose to the pilot side. The mechanic pulled out a black flashlight and played a bright beam on the firewall. A long blue stain wandered down the slick metal.
Blue… Blue is the color of the only remaining aviation fuel in the U.S., called 100 low lead, or sometimes 100LL. Why is it blue, other than the fact that its cost per gallon gives pilots the Blues? Well, back in the day when aviation was healthier, there were many kinds of airplane gas. There was 80 octane, the 100 octane, and even a 130 octane. Various engines ran better on one or the other, and with that many gasolines available, there was always the risk that some fool line boy would put the wrong juice in your tanks with possibly tragic results. Thus, each kind of gas had its own color so you could tell if you had the right or wrong go-juice in your bird’s tanks. Eighty was red, 130 was green, and the 100 was blue.
The blue stain was telling us that the seep was no longer a seep. It was a… Well, I don’t know what to call something that’s more than a seep but less than a trickle. But it wasn’t a good sign.
Next the mechanic crawled under the dash to look at the bottom of the header tank from inside. This isn’t an easy thing to do in an Ercoupe. He lay on his back on the seat, head under the dash, legs and feet dangling out the window.
“Can some one get me my phone?” his disembodied voice floated out of the cockpit.
Odd time to choose to make a phone call, I thought, but I fetched his phone from his workbench.
It turns out he wanted to take a photo. Massive stretches of blue were staining the underside of the tank. OK, well, massive is an exaggeration. There were two or three stains the size of postage stamps. But they weren’t there a month ago.
But that wasn’t half of it. Not by far.
Along the base of the tank, where it rests on a bracket on the inside of the firewall, was liquid gasoline. I guess my seep just became a spring. In just a hair over a month. The tank job couldn’t be put off any longer.
I asked my senior mechanic if the outfit that rebuilt our wing tank this spring also rebuilt header tanks. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but given how hard it’s going to be to get to, maybe you should consider a new one.” Then he asked if I happened to know if Univair sold new ones.
Univair, a company in Colorado, should really be called Uni-savior. They hold the Type Certificate for the Ercoupe, and although they’ve never made a single airplane, they continue to make almost every part and piece of the planes. This is why Ercoupe owners, unlike owners of other classic planes of yesteryear, don’t need to own three planes to keep one flying: Virtually every replacement part we could need can be on a UPS truck within 24 hours.
Because while Univair can make anything you need, not everything you need is always in stock. Still, better to wait six weeks than spend a lifetime searching airplane junkyards.
Standing in my mechanic’s hanger next to Tess I could almost hear the gas dripping onto the floor. Which it wasn’t. Other than in my writer’s imagination. I pulled out my phone and checked Univair’s website. There it was, the header tank, all $2,180.87 of it. Seriously? Eighty-seven cents? Why not just round it up to twenty-two hundred bucks?
I ordered it.
Then I flew my leaky plane south to the prop shop, wondering if I’d ever get away from fixing this plane and back to just, you know, flying it. So… did I choose 47 or 48 at the prop shop? It turns out it can be pitched to 47.5. Who knew?
With that problem solved, I set about working my contacts for advice on how to pull the header tank out of the plane without completely disemboweling the cockpit, as it turns out that neither of my mechanics had ever done it. Luckily, for Tess’s version of her breed, it’s not too bad a procedure after all. The yokes come out. Various cables get disconnected, then the tank is disconnected and pretty much drops straight onto the floor, where it can be pulled out of the plane. At first glance my guys thought that the entire instrument panel and all its toys would need to be removed, but that’s not necessary. So that’s good.
Well, other than the timing, of course.
Over dinner and lots of wine at the end of the very long day, I was filling the family in on the latest debacle. When I finished, I wrapped up with a hopeful thought from one of my mechanics: At this point we’ve replaced or refurbished virtually every system on the airplane. It’s more of a 2018 Ercoupe than a 1947 Ercoupe. With a strong new power plant on the front and all major systems in ship-shape order, there would be nothing but routine maintenance to worry about going forward.
My mother wasn’t buying that. Not for a second. “I’m sure something else will break down next,” she snorted.
Maybe so. But I hope not. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be a long time before the next episode of This Old Airplane airs on the Plane Tales Network.
It was the best Ercoupe takeoff since the JATO tests of 1941. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences strapped rocket pods under the wings of an Ercoupe and lit the fuses in a series of successful tests that led to the military use of rockets to help heavy planes get off of short runways—and to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But there were no rocket pods on Tessie’s sturdy metal wings, and we were rising off the ground at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Granted, in other airplanes that’s nothing to write home about. But in my beloved, but heavy and underpowered ‘Coupe, the only time I’d seen a number like that was when a thunderstorm tried to suck me up into its jaws when I foolishly tried to slip under it.
So I was ecstatic about the climb rate. The new stroker engine was really showing its stuff, lifting Tess off the runway like never before.
But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem was my propeller. Oh gosh, where to start… Where to start? OK, the angle at which a propeller cuts the air is called its “pitch.” A flatter pitch bites the air in a way that creates better climb, but at the cost of speed. A steeper pitch gives more speed, but less lifting ability. Pitch also has a complicated ménage à trois relationship with torque and rpm that I don’t even pretend to understand, but the upshot of all of this was that while we had JATO-like takeoffs, we were hitting our engine’s redline at about half power. My mechanic advised me that I needed to re-pitch the prop.
What’s involved in that?
Well, fancy airplanes have variable pitch props that let the pilot change the pitch of the propellers in flight using a lever in the cockpit so that they can have both strong climb on takeoff and fast cruise in flight. Less fancy modern planes have what are called ground-adjustable propellers. The pitch can be easily and quickly changed on the ground to best fit the mission at hand.
But I have neither.
I have a metal prop whose pitch can only be changed by having an expert literally bend the metal blades to change the angle, thus “re-pitching” it. Luckily for me there’s just such an expert an hour and a half’s flight away and there’s no limit on how many times my particular model of prop can be re-pitched, other than the limits imposed by my bank account balance. Unluckily for me, this is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. Adding to the complexity of the situation, propeller performance is affected by weight, temperature, altitude, the whims of the Gods of Aviation, and who knows what else.
Of course, in my innocence at the beginning of this particular Plane Tale, I knew none of this. I trustingly flew to the prop shop and talked to the Master Metal Bender, giving him what data we had. Tessie’s prop was measured. She was wearing a 46-pitch prop. Yeah, the numbers meant nothing to me either, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that would be considered an “extreme” climb prop for an Ercoupe, which is what she needed at our altitude with a largely worn out engine. Given our data, the prop was re-pitched to 51, which is completely at the other end of the spectrum for ‘Coupes. I now had a fast cruise prop.
And boy, was Tess ever fast. Wearing her new pitch, she cut through the air a full 10 miles per hour faster than ever! It was amazing. Race trophies danced in my eyes.
But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem this time was the runway. Tessie didn’t want to leave it. We used up thousands of feet of concrete, and then she could barely lift into the air. I had cartoon visions of Tessie furiously flapping her metal wings to get airborne.
This just wouldn’t do.
So back to the prop shop I went. The Master Metal Bender took Tess’s propeller off again and re-re-pitched. Logically, it seemed we needed to be halfway between where we’d been and where we went (although these things aren’t necessarily linear). As half way would be 48.5, and things don’t work that way, I had to choose between 48 and 49. I went with 49, on the fast side of middle of the road. OK, forget what I said a few minutes ago. We really do have to all talk more about these pitch numbers to drive the story forward. Here’s your background…
Historically the Ercoupe wisdom was that:
48 was a climb prop.
50 was a normal prop, and…
52 was a cruise prop.
But ‘Coupes have gotten fat. New electronics and gadgets have made them heaver over the decades, and that affects prop performance. While there’s no official data, for modern weights, many Coupe folks now consider that:
46 is a climb prop.
48 is a normal, prop, and…
50 is a cruise prop.
Adding to the confusion is that no one seems to know what prop best suits the stroker in an Ercoupe. Given the fact that this whole prop thing is more of an art than a science in the first place, I’m sure you can see where this is going.
So how’d the re-re-pitch go? Rio said it best when he told his grandmother that it was, “Less miserable.”
The new pitch, as expected, reduced the speed and increased the climb. But it was a marginal change at best. So we have to re-re-re-pitch. What a bitch.
So picture me standing in the Aviation Maintenance Casino. I’m standing at the propeller roulette wheel, and there are only two numbers left to bet on: 47 and 48. I know 46 is too flat. I know that 49 and 51 are too steep, and that even though we skipped 50, the change between 49 and 51 wasn’t much. This suggests that going from 49 to 48 wouldn’t net much of a change either. Of course, by the same logic, a 47 shouldn’t be much different from a 46, which was where all of our troubles started in the first place.
The Croupier calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…”
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.
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.
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.