Throttle Tale

Thump! The nose pitches down. I ease the yoke back to raise it again. Bam! Up goes the nose. Yoke forward. Whap! The right wing flips up. I ease the yoke to the right to level the wings. Whomp! Down I go again. My butt levitates off the seat, the lap belt digging into my gut. I instinctively duck to avoid smashing my head on the roof. Oh, lookie there, the G-meter just registered some negative G’s.

Yes, the Sky Gods are in a foul mood today. Especially the ones in charge of turbulence. Oh, and the ones in charge of visibility, too. It’s legal. Well more than, actually, but it’s an ugly flavor of legal visibility. Hazy. Misty. A veil that I would enjoy as part of a re-enactment of Salome’s dance, I’m finding ugly stretched across the sky. The distant horizon is only hinted at. It’s like flying through an unending cloudy fish bowl.

An unending fish bowl being shaken by a psychotic goldfish-hating pet store owner.

It’s weird to have turbulence and murky skies at the same time. Usually you get turbulence on beautiful days when unstable air scrubs the sky clean, letting you see all the way to the far ends of the earth; while murky skies tend to be calm, stable, and tranquil—like brackish still water in the Bayou.

But the sky isn’t the only weird thing going on. Something’s weird with the airplane, too. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s nothing really wrong with the plane. But somehow, it’s not quite right, either.

Or is it me? As you know, I haven’t been flying Tess as much as I used to. For, what — the last two years? — she’s been in the shop more days than she’s been in our hangar. I guess it’s the curse of owning a 72-year-old airplane. No wonder the Commemorative Air Force is always pestering me for money to keep their fleet of warbirds in the air.

There. There it is again. A twitch in the right wing. The hint of a rise, then a brief moment when the controls freeze. But, as fast as it happens, it’s gone. Is it just the turbulence? Or is it something else?

Of course, I know I have a problem on the ground. Tess isn’t steering right. Most airplanes are steered on the ground using their rudder pedals, but Ercoupes don’t generally have rudder pedals. Instead, you “drive” a Coupe just like you drive a car, using the yoke. The yoke controls an inter-connected system that ties the twin rudders, the alerions, and the nose gear all together. They all move at once. This linkage between alerion and rudder is what keeps the Ercoupe always in coordinated flight and is 50% of the reason why they are “characteristically incapable of spinning.” The other 50% is the fact that, rigged right, they can’t achieve the angle of attack necessary to enter into a stall.

But I digress.

After the rebuilt nose strut was re-installed on Tess, her steering became odd. Before, just like a well-balanced car, once I got her pointed in the right direction she stayed on track. But now I was finding I had to do a lot of correction and counter-correction to keep her taxiing straight.

The constant movement of the yokes to keep the plane nailed to the yellow line didn’t seem right. I felt like a drunk driver. But, of course, I’d been driving on a shot nose strut for years, so I didn’t really know what a proper one should feel like. I made some calls, sent some emails. The consensus among the Ercoupe Illuminati was that, yeah, it didn’t seem right. I received various ideas of things to check, and they all checked out.

I decided the best thing to do was to ignore it for a while. Sometimes airplanes fix themselves if you’re patient.

But of course, in an interconnected system, if you are having problems on the ground, it’s only a matter of time until you start have problems in the air.

Thump! Bam! Whap! Yee-haw, ride ‘em cowboy! A moment of calm. Then the twitch. A slight rise of the right wing. I respond by trying to turn the yoke to the right, but it’s frozen. Locked in concreate. But only for a microsecond. Then it’s free, and I lower the wing. It’s so fast I’m not sure it’s real. Did the controls really lock, or was I just fighting a gust?

Well, no time to worry about it now: Coming out of the mist and haze is KONY, the Onley Municipal Airport, home of Air Tractor. My refueling stop, and a field that I have mixed emotions about. They have three landing strips, which is great, and two of them are in fabulous shape. It’s perfectly located as a second fuel stop en route between my home base and Terrell, Texas, which is host city to the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race—one of my favorite races. It’s named, obviously, for Mark Hardin, who raced his 1941 Ercoupe in the League long before I came along. I missed the race last year due to maintenance issues, but I’m on my way to it now, and couldn’t be more excited. This year’s Hardin Race looks to be one of the largest SARL races in a long time. The roster of race planes is pushing 40 and more seem to be signing up every day. So why are my emotions about KONY mixed if it’s a great field, and in the perfect location on the way to one of my favorite races? Well, the fuel pump and pilot terminal are maintained by the well-named Stark Aviation.

I’ll leave it at that.

The lovely tail wind from the west that’s been pushing me along over the ground at “real” airplane speeds has shifted and is now screaming up from the south. I take an extended right base to Runway 17. Carb heat on. Mixture rich. Throttle back.Thump! Bam! Whap!

I’m lined up perfectly, but I can see I’m too low. Dropping too fast. The headwind has reduced my ground speed more than I thought it would. No problem, I’ll just add a little burst of power. I ease the throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good. The field off the end of Runway 17 not so good. I push the carb heat in, shutting it off. I pump the throttle.

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Nothing. I push the nose over a hair to get the best glide speed—the velocity that will maximize how long I can stay in the air before the ground rises up to meet me, which will be considerably short of where the runway starts.

This doesn’t look good for the home team. I keep pumping the throttle back and forth. It’s all I can do. I’m dropping at 1,000 feet per minute. Crap.

Suddenly, as if nothing were ever wrong, the engine surges back to life. The dizzying descent is arrested, and I touch down lightly just beyond the threshold.

I start breathing again.

Once in front of the rusty Stark fuel pump, I run the throttle up and down. Up and down. The engine roars and settles. Roars and settles.

I search my rusty memory banks. Maybe because it’s so moist the carb heat over leaned the engine? I’m not sure that’s even possible, but I decide to land sans carb heat when I get to Terrell, my next stop.

Next time, on Plane Tales: Carb ice is the wrong diagnosis, but Tessie does need a doctor.

 

Flasher… but not like you’re thinking

“Traffic, your two o’clock, three miles, seven thousand five hundred, inbound,” said the tower.

“Looking for traffic,” I replied, squinting my eyes, leaning forward in the cockpit, and scanning the sky above me at my two o’clock. Actually, I’m not supposed to say “looking for traffic.” The proper response is, “negative contact.” But looking  is commonly used by pilots, and that was what I was doing.

Looking. Desperately looking.

Then the other plane was two miles from me. Then one. Then, according to the tower, it was, “no factor.” I never did see it. In fact, having done a number of test flights in the busy Santa Fe airspace, and flying out of Santa Fe with Lisa in Warbler during her training, I’ve become aware of just how damn hard it can be to spot other airplanes. Even when they’re very close. And even when someone is telling you where to look.

And that began to worry me.

True, mid-air collisions between two airplanes are exceedingly rare, but they do happen. And we’re at much greater risk than the average airplane, because we’re a slow racer. Yes, it’s true. While Tess is literally the fastest Ercoupe in the world, we’re still among the slowest planes in the Sport Air Racing League. As such, we’re often relegated to the “short course” in races so that we can be back before the beer gets warm and the girls get cold.

Oh dear. I’m told I can’t say such sexist things anymore.

Let me try again… so that we can be back before the rest of the racers fly back to their home bases, re-fuel and clean their planes, have dinner, kiss their kids goodnight, and watch the late show.

The short course is usually just the main race with a few turns lopped off to make it shorter. The goal is to have most of the planes back about the same time for the awards. The problem is that, realistically, this means that I enter the pack somewhere in the middle of the returning racers, and I’m coming in from a different direction. Naturally we have radio procedures and safety protocols, but anything I can do to make Race 53 more visible increases everyone’s safety.

My first thought for increasing my visibility was to get a smoke system like air show planes have. I could let out a long stream of smoke as I approached the pack. Plus, it would make for a crowd-pleasing checkered-flag finish line drama. I had that thought about three years ago, but it’s no simple thing for a certified airplane to get a smoke system. There’s a lot of paperwork with the FAA. I hounded my mechanic about it for about a year and a half before he caved and agreed to take it on. But then, when we got into the nitty-gritty of it, the smoke oil tank couldn’t be installed under the baggage compartment floor like I had envisioned. It would have to be above the floor, where it would take up nearly half my storage. As much as I wanted to be able to say, “Smoke on!” it was too much of a sacrifice of Tess’s utility. And then, of course, we had our long-running series of serious maintenance headaches, breakdowns, and groundings, and I haven’t been racing much, so I hadn’t been thinking about it.

Until the other plane passed by me as unseen as a ghost plane.

Of course, we fly with flashing strobes on our wingtips and our landing lights turned on. Modern landing lights are super-bright LEDs that use precious little power and, unlike traditional light bulbs, last pretty much forever. That makes us more visible. But there’s a way to take it up a notch, and that’s the charmingly-named Wig-Wag.

A Wig-Wag controller turns your landing light system into an aerial discotheque. Only, you know, without the music from the Bee Gees. So with the plane down once again, and with plenty of time on my hands, I started researching Wig-Wags and was pleasantly surprised to quickly locate one that was actually pre-approved for our airplane. It’s called the MaxPulse, and it’s a simple solid-state control switch that gets spliced into the wiring between the lights and the master switch. It’s surprisingly affordable, as airplane stuff goes, and my mechanic thought the installation would be a breeze, as airplane stuff goes.

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All things being equal, it seemed like cheap insurance, so I said, “Let’s do it.”

The MaxPulse, once installed, will let our landing lights still work as landing lights at night, but during the day there are four different options:

  • Both the landing lights, which are mounted in the leading edges of Tessie’s wings just inside her racing stripes, can flash at the same time like giant strobe lights. Poof. Poof. Poof. Poof. Forty-four pulses per minute.
  • Or they can wag back and forth. Left one on, right one off. Right one on, left one off. This is officially called alternating, but in the common tongue, this is our Wig-Wag. It really catches the eye in the air. Poof. Piff. Poof. Piff. Also at forty-four pulses per minute. Or….
  • It can wig-wag at eight-eight pulses per minute. Poof-Piff-Poof-Piff. Or…
  • It can wig-wag at one hundred frickin’ twenty pulses per minute. PoofPiffPoofPiff.

We’ll have to experiment to figure out which option makes our speedy slow racer the most visible, but there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to light up the day.

It’s not smoke, but it’ll do.

Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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