Floods, cars, boats, helicopters… and airplane engines

This is how I heard the tale:

It was a storm of biblical proportions. The radio said the storm of the century. Leave your homes. Head for high ground.

The Good Christian sat on his front porch and watched the pounding rain. Watched the muddy river swell and rise. Overflow its banks. Swamp the road. Gurgle up over the gutter. Envelop his sidewalk.

And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Down the road came a Sheriff’s Deputy in a brown patrol car, its red lights flashing through the downpour, water nearly to the top of its wheel wells. The Deputy rolled down his window and shouted to the Good Christian: “Get in the car. I’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, I can’t make you go,” said the Deputy, and he drove off into the deluge.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his second floor. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Across the angry muddy waters that now rose to his second story windowsill came the Coast Guard in a small motorboat. “Get in the boat. We’ll save you,” called the crew.

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the crew, and they motored off into the rain.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his roof. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Out of the angry sky came a National Guard helicopter. The giant olive-drab machine hovered over the roof of the Good Christian’s house, the mighty blades beating back the torrents of rain, its engines drowning out the thunder. And the crew shouted: “Get in the helicopter. We’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the National Guardsmen, and the helicopter rose up and disappeared into the storm.

The waters rose. The roof was awash. The Good Christian retreated to the top of the chimney, but the waters rose again and swept him away, and he drowned.

At the gates of heaven the Good Christian met God. “I believed in you,” wailed the Good Christian, “I had faith in you. I prayed to you to save my life. Why did you let me drown in the flood?”

And God sighed, exasperated, and ticking off the count on his fingers, said, “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I sent a helicopter. What more did you want?”

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What does all of that have to do with me? Well, I’m pretty sure I ignored the car, and I almost sent the boat away, too. Of course my flood is subtler than the swirling muddy waters that drowned the Good Christian, but for some reason the tale came back into my head recently.

Ah, where to start…

I am, bar none, the world’s foremost expert in Ercoupe ownership. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true I first bought one. So please don’t judge me too harshly when I tell you that I bought an airplane that didn’t have complete logs. In my feeble defense, we had had the extraordinarily rare bad luck of being involved in another almost-purchase in which the logs turned out to be forged, so at the time I didn’t have much faith in the paper that goes with the plane, and put more stock in a good inspection. (Which as it turns out, we didn’t get, either.)

I’m telling you this now because you need to know that the history of our engine is a bit of a mystery. We’re not 100% sure how many hours are on it, or when it was last rebuilt. It may be the original engine from 1947. The only thing we know for sure is that the engine is overdue for an overhaul. I’ve known this for a while, but had convinced myself that I could make it through the race season this year and worry about it later.

Then Springfield happened.

Two days ago I was finally back in Santa Fe where most of our maintenance happens. At least our not-broken-down-in-the-field maintenance. I was there for an oil change on the new cylinder and to get a few minor squawks fixed before the next round of races, and the guys wanted to see the pictures I took of the bad cylinder. It was partly professional curiosity, partly injured pride. You see, that cylinder “laid down” three operational hours after they gave it a clean bill of health.

After studying the images, they came to the conclusion that the cylinder was so old it was basically crumbling to dust. The senior mechanic said, “For all we know, these date from the 1950s.” A hair over a year ago one of the other cylinders cracked and had to be replaced. Now a second one collapsed. How much longer before the final two failed? And would they Go West quietly? Or, quite literally, with a bang? And it’s not just cylinders. What about the guts of the engine? The crank and cam shafts, buried deep inside the case out of sight, what sort of shape are they really in? And the bearings that hold them in place and let them move? Oil analysis hasn’t given us any hints of trouble, but… Well, everything about the engine is very old, and we’re asking a lot of it.

The more junior mechanic pulled me aside and said, “If it were my plane, I’d do a major overhaul. Right now.”

Easy for you to say, I thought. Airplane mechanics are paid better than writers, and you have both the expertise and the license to do much of the work yourself.

But the real problem is time. An engine rebuild, called a major overhaul, or MOH, takes months. Time I don’t have. “Not in the middle of race season,” I told him, without another thought.

He was silent for a minute, then said, “You know, if you were just going up and puttering around, or going to the next airport for a $100 hamburger, this would be OK. But not for the kind of flying you do. You guys fly a lot, and far, far away. And the racing is high performance.”

“I’ve invested too much in this season to lose,” I said.

Again he was silent for a minute, then softly said, “Maybe you need to rethink your priorities.”

Get in. We’ll save you from the flood.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I spent an hour picking both their brains, and by the time I drove home, I was feeling like I was playing Russian roulette with my two remaining cylinders. Was the Springfield the boat or the helicopter?

I was facing up to the fact that I needed to do something about Tessie’s engine.

Of course, all my options were bad. One option was that I could just hope for the best and replace anything that broke when it broke. But I fly with my 15-year-old son. I’m not as good a father as I’d like to be, but I don’t want harm to come to him, or to leave him without a father.

I was now spooked enough that the fix-it-as-we-go option was out.

I could just replace the two old cylinders with new ones to get through the race season. They’d be trashed when the MOH came, which couldn’t safely be put off much beyond the end of the season, but it would keep us in the races—unless something failed deeper in the crankcase. Proactively replacing the cylinders would cost four or five thousand bucks. Money, I decided, better put toward the larger bill for a MOH.

My next option was to replace the engine entirely with one that was already overhauled. A bit more expensive, but faster. And there was only one place to go for the best ready-to-hang engine: Don’s Dream Machines. He had a stellar rep in the biz, but he was also missing in action. His website was gone, and the two phone numbers I had for him had been disconnected.

Our engine is not rare, exactly, but not common, either. I emailed all my contacts, but no one knew of anyone who had a quality rebuilt ready to hang.

My lead mechanic put his mind to how to cut time off the project, and came up with two options. First, he located an engine that was purported to be relatively low time, but was missing its logs. It was only $4,000 and could be put on Tessie quickly. Even though it was his idea, he was lukewarm about it, as was I. It seemed to me that we’d just be trading one set of mystery troubles for another. And again, pissing away money that would just have to be spent again. My mechanic was of the opinion that it would be OK for the light flyer, but that we really needed a properly overhauled engine for the kind of flying we do.

His second option was to find a second crankcase (this is the shell of the engine) and then buy, brand new, a bunch of the parts that go into it. Normally, the rebuild shop takes your old engine apart and tries to refurib as many of the innards as possible. My guy’s thinking was that most of the parts in our engine are at, or near, the end of their service lives anyway, and that just “going new” would save time.

Of course it would cost more. Or maybe not. The price quoted for the MOH was the minimum, assuming everything inside the case could be refurib’d. Anything that couldn’t be would need to be replaced, adding both time and money.

I became convinced that the second case option was the best choice of a bad lot. I OK’d the plan. The empty crankcase with full logs was ordered from one supplier. A new crankshaft, connecting rods, and pistons from another. New cylinders will shortly be on their way to the rebuild shop.

How much time will it save? Two weeks, at best. We were still looking at 4-6 weeks. I stared at my calendar for a long time. I didn’t have a hole that big. Summer was filled with the Ercoupe national convention, AirVenture, and four races.

I was going to have to rethink my priorities.

Tess missed last year’s national Coupe gathering, and this year I’m the keynote speaker. I really felt that I need to show up in a Coupe, plus a lot of readers are keen to see Tessie in the flesh. And it’s only a few weeks down the road. We really can’t get started on the rebuild that fast, anyway. Of course, my family’s freaked out now. The plane that only yesterday was a bullet-proof magic carpet, today is a deathtrap. Finally, we agreed that I’d fly out solo to reduce any theoretical risk to others, and also so I could cruise higher to give me a greater glide range should the worst happen. Plus, this is cruise flight: Not high performance balls-to-the-wall racing. The strain on the old engine will be minimal.

When I get home from the convention, we’ll pull the engine—missing the 20th running of the AirVenture Cup, as well as a Georgia race and the Indy race—while a “new” engine is created Frankenstein-like from parts old and new. We’re shooting for having Race 53 ready to run the last race of the summer, in Urbana, five weeks after pulling the engine. It’s a goal, but I’m not holding my breath. Worst-case scenario, I’ll be back in action for the fall races, the last seven of the season.

Or maybe not.

Because the future of our race season will depend on how much this really ends up costing, and how many points my competitor Charles Cluck is up on me by then. In my book, if there’s no chance of winning, there’s no point in spending the money. But Cluck is an oddly honorable guy, which I’m not used to in a competitor. He already bowed out of one race when we broke down. But three? That might be too much to stomach, even for a man of high honor.

Of course, I’m riddled with doubt about my choices, and unsure I chose the right path. Perhaps I should have hung the used engine. Maybe I should have slapped on two more cylinders. Or is my path right, and my timing wrong? Maybe I should have skipped the Ercoupe gathering and pushed to have the new engine ready for the AirVenture Cup.

But despite all my second-guessing, I’m sure of one thing. I’m sure glad to be on the helicopter, looking down on the muddy waters below, instead of standing on the roof watching it disappear into the storm without me.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Emergency Landing

The quiet is… eerie. Gone is the familiar dull roar of the engine. The only sound is the wind whispering over the canopy.

I pull the carb heat lever. No dice. I check the fuel shut off to ensure it didn’t get bumped. It didn’t. I try to restart the engine. It’s dead as a doornail. I pitch the plane for her best glide speed—the magic number that’s supposed to give me the longest range for my height—and I’m headed down.

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I have time. Minutes, anyway, because I was flying a lot higher than usual. But not high enough to reach the airport. It looks like I’ll be doing an “off field” landing; which is an odd way of saying that I’m going to land in a farmer’s field. Or on a country road. Or on any other friendly-looking flat spot.

I quickly scan the horizon. What are my options? Below us, and to my left, it’s solid trees. Suicide. Off to my right, a couple of miles East there’s flat land as far as the eye can see. But it’s too far away to really be sure how smooth the ground is. Plus I’m not sure I can glide that far, and if I can’t, I’ll be in those suicidal trees.

Not far ahead there’s a clearing. It’s a cloudy day, I have no shadows to judge how smooth the surface really is, but it shows every sign of being hospitable. That’s my spot. I commit to it. No turning back now.

I bank gently to the left and glide parallel to the field, my prop gently wind milling, silent still. I fly past the field, dropping, dropping, dropping toward the ground.

The field behind me, I bank right and wheel the plane around to line up for a landing. Crap. I’m too high. I dump some flaps. Then some more. Then all I have. The descent steepens but it’s not going to be enough. At this rate I’ll touch down at the tree line on the opposite side of the field.

“What do you think?” asks my copilot Michael.

“I think I’m too damned high,” I reply.

“Yeah. I agree,” he says, with Zen-like calm, “any ideas on what you could do about that?”

“I could do a slip,” I said, “…if I remembered how to.” Years of flying the unique Ercoupe has come back to bite me in the ass in this new airplane. Ercoupe flying, with its interconnected rudders and ailerons is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex, and flying a Coupe well takes a different set of skills than flying a conventional airplane well. I’ve gotten very good at flying Ercoupes, and apparently, very bad at flying anything else.

“Opposite rudder and aileron,” Michael reminds me. Immediately, I pull the stick to the right and mash my left foot to the floor. The little white plane twists oddly in the sky, then responding to the huge increase in drag from being forced to fly slide sideways without power, drops like a rock. The ground rises up toward us. I’m pleased to see that the surface is excellent for an emergency landing.

I’m not so pleased to see we’re two-thirds of the way across it.

“That’s close enough,” says Michael, and he leans forward and pushes the throttle to the firewall. The engine springs back to life. I ease the stick back. Our descent slows. Then stops. We’re still well above the field. I fly over it, studying the ground, pleased with my choice. If I hadn’t been too high, and had this been a real emergency, we could have landed safely there.

What? You thought I’d really lost an engine? Oh dear, no. Sorry to have misled you. It’s that time of the calendar again: The simulated emergency was part of my every-two-years Flight Review.

Here’s how that works: Once you have a pilot’s license, it’s good forever. Well, until you die, anyway. Once a pilot, always a pilot. The license, formally called a certificate by the FAA, has no expiration date. But (there’s always a but) that doesn’t mean you are free to actually use your license. Bear with me. To serve as the pilot in command of any airplane, you have to have had something called a flight review within the last 24 calendar months. My last one was this month in 2015. So that’s why I was up with a flight instructor getting a mental and physical workout.

I ease back on the stick, retract the flaps, and we start to climb out. It’s good to hear the thrum of the engine again.

But this is why we train. Because someday the silence up front may be for real.

Under pressure

“Something’s wrong,” I tell Lisa.

Immediately her head—which had been bee-bopping back and forth to some silent music playing in her mind—freezes, and her perpetual in-flight smile dissipates.

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“Huh? What?” she asks.

I point to the oil pressure gauge. We’ve lost oil pressure. A lot of it. The needle on the small round dial in the lower left hand corner of Tessie’s panel is in the red arc, down to around 20 pounds per square inch. Damn! Why hadn’t I noticed it dropping earlier? When was the last time I looked? I scan my instruments regularly, automatically, without thinking about it—just like breathing. They don’t even register in my mind unless they have changed a bit. But to go from green to red is a seismic change. How could I have missed that?

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Did I get distracted?

Or is it dropping that fast?

We’re just a hair over an hour out from Wilbarger County at Vernon, Texas, where we’d refueled and added oil. So we have plenty of oil. It must be a bad gauge. Unlike most pilots, I resist the temptation to thump the gauge with my finger to see if it will change its mind. Instead, I work the problem in my head, but talk out loud to keep my copilot in the loop.

The flight pad is estimating 35 minutes until our next scheduled fuel stop, based on current ground speed. But if it isn’t a bad gauge, thirty-five minutes is a long time to run an engine short of oil.

What are my options? “What’s the nearest airport?” I ask Lisa. She snatches my iPhone, which runs a backup copy of Garmin Pilot, and stabs at the screen.

“The closest is Smiley Johnson Municipal,” she says, “not too far behind us.” Good omen, I think, with a name like that. “But no services,” she adds.

Hmmm… if we need a mechanic it would be better to land somewhere that has one. The closest place with maintenance shops is Amarillo, about 20 minutes away, north and west of our current location.

The oil pressure gauge hasn’t changed. Still too damn low, but not dropping. The oil temp is normal. If we were really short on oil, it should be running hot. The engine temp is good, too.

Our gauges are telling different stories.

But which one is telling the truth? If an airplane cockpit were a democracy, the oil pressure gauge would be out-voted by the two temperature gauges.

Of course a cockpit isn’t a democracy. Far from it. I’m in absolute command—with absolute responsibility.

OK, so it looks like a bad gauge. But if it isn’t, what would cause us to be down so far, so fast? Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless. It could be we’ve sprung a leak in an oil line, cracked oil filter, or suffered some other calamity, and at this very second my engine’s life blood is draining out, smearing a slick coat of death over the belly of the plane.

Better an empty airport than an empty stretch of road in rural Texas. We could be minutes away from a bona fide emergency. It’s time to get on the ground.

I press the “NRST” button on the Flight Pad, then select Smiley Johnson. It’s only 16 miles behind us. I roll Tess into a right bank. Time to get on the ground where we can check the actual oil level. If it’s fine, we’ve not lost much time and we can lift off and be on our way. If it really is low, we can top up. If we have some sort of leak… Well, we’ll be stranded for a while, but it beats all the other alternatives—given the situation.

I throttle back to lose some altitude. The oil pressure drops to zero. My heart skips a beat.

Quickly, I throttle back up and the oil pressure recovers, but only to the top of the red line.

We fly in strained silence for what feel like an eternity. The engine sings its muffled roar. No change. No roughness. No skips. I fly with one eye out the windscreen and one eye on the oil pressure gauge.

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There it is! A narrow ribbon of concrete running north-south. Shelter from the storm that hit on a bright sunny day.

We drop into a lazy curving arc and line up. Seconds later our tires kiss the pavement, letting out their characteristic chirp. I taxi to the apron and quickly shut down. We sit for a moment, collecting our thoughts and listening to the wind buffet the top of the canopy. Then I slide the two halves of the canopy into the belly of the plane, climb out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop to the ground. I walk around my left wing and kneel on the ground, looking up at the belly of the plane, half-expecting it to be dripping with fresh black oil.

Well, nothing unusual anyway. Like a Harley Davison, if a Continental C-85 isn’t leaking some oil, it’s probably completely out. But we only have the normal small smear of oil that the engine has burped out staining our underside.

Next, I open the cowling by freeing the four camlocs that hold it securely closed in flight. I peer into the engine compartment. All looks well. We’re not car-show clean (and never will be) but there’s nothing unusual to report.

Gingerly, I reach for the dipstick, being careful not to brush my hand against any of the red-hot engine components. I grip the bright yellow cap and turn it counter clockwise. Wisps of steam escape the oil sump as I pull out the dipstick. I wipe the stick with a red oil rag, then place it back in the sump and lock the cap by turning it clockwise. Then I pull it again to read the level.

It’s half what it ought to be.

Son of a bitch. The gauge wasn’t lying.

Our oil is low. But there’s no sign of it leaking. So where does that leave us? Where the hell did the oil go? And what are our options now?

I sit cross-legged on the pavement and stare at my airplane, imploring it to answer my questions. None of the facts add up. I can make no sense of bizarre layers of information.

We have a quart and a half of oil with us, which should have been enough to get us home. Now I don’t know how far it will get me, and curse myself for not having more onboard. It’s Sunday in Texas, and that means that the vast majority of airport businesses are closed. I get out my phone and start checking the hours of various shops at nearby airports.

To find one that’s not observing the Sabbath, we need to go to Amarillo. From where I sit, it’s only a hair over half an hour to Amarillo’s Tradewind Airport. With no visible sign of an oil leak, it seems a fair bet we can make it. Once there, we can see how much oil we lost, if any, en route, and then decide how to proceed.

I run my thinking by Lisa, and she agrees. We mount up and take to the air.

Topped off, our oil pressure is now good. Flying low over the Texas countryside, it holds steady. Across the south side of the city we fly, descending on final approach over a sprawling cemetery.

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On the tarmac in front of the terminal, I order fuel and two quarts of oil from the lineman. Then I free the cowl to check the oil.

It’s unchanged.

 

[From Tradewind, we flew back to our home base at Santa Rosa with normal oil consumption. The cause of our low oil is one of those airplane mysteries that will never be solved. My best guess is that some sort of bubble in the sump tricked me into thinking I had more oil than I actually did when I added oil in Vernon, TX. But we also topped up that morning before the short flight from North Texas Regional to Vernon, so that explanation really doesn’t hold water either.]

Test Pilot

When I was in flight school, I read Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Right Stuff. It tells the entwined, but parallel, tales of the Mercury Seven and the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the early days of jet plane development. The thing that impressed my barely post-teenage brain the most about test-flight work wasn’t the fast planes, the high risk, or the higher status; but rather it was the fact—according to Wolfe’s accounts—that women just flocked to test pilots. And not just any kind of women, if you know what I mean.

Right then and there, I decided to become a test pilot.

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

After two and a half months in the shop, the Plane Tales Plane was ready for the air again. Well, maybe. So many things had been done to her that she needed someone to take her up and ensure that all was in proper order. In short, a test flight. And as I have more hours in her than anyone, I was the obvious choice as test pilot.

I didn’t expect a flock of chippies to magically appear and make my day, but I took my responsibilities seriously. Or at least I tried to. Time change having just arrived, it was unaccustomedly dark in my house at 5:30 in the morning as I headed to the airport, and I neglected to grab the notebook that had a carefully drafted flight log designed to make it easy to record observations and to ensure that I didn’t forget to check anything.

Still, I was able to borrow a clipboard from my mechanic and I set off with a tiny tickle of a thrill: Me! A test pilot! (Chest puffs up slightly.)

The sun was barely above the eastern mountains, and yet to warm the chilly ramp, as I did a through pre-flight inspection before mounting up. The step up to the wing was a stretch—new spacers in the landing gear have raised Tessie’s tails to the proper level. Old Ercoupes, like old women, sag over time. Unlike many planes, however, saggy landing gear actually changes the flight characteristics of the ‘Coupe. She’s designed to have a zero angle of attack on the ground, meaning the plane isn’t capable of flight until you lift the nose. Of course, if your gear is saggy, your nose is pre-lifted. It doesn’t make a world of difference on takeoff, but it matters when landing. The Coupe is designed to stay on the ground once you plant it there. This is especially important in crosswind landings.

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Slipping back into the cockpit after such a long absence was heavenly, like collapsing into a favorite comfy chair at the end of a long, hard day. I slid the new smoky grey doors closed above my head and fired up her engine, the throaty rumble music to my ears.

Oil pressure in the green arc, Mr. Test Pilot professionally notes.

While she warms up, I get familiar with my new GPS navigation radio, making sure it can talk to my iPad and smart phone. Then I plug in the remote for my wireless headset, turn the headset on, link the two devices, slide the headset over my head, carefully adjust the ear pieces, and then position the mike in front of my mouth, whereupon I realize I’ve forgotten to put on my hat.

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

I take the headset off and start over, this time with my hat on first. Soon, it’s time to fly. I’m at Santa Fe, which is a controlled airport, so the first order of business is to call ground control and get permission to taxi the plane from the maintenance shop to the active runway.

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

Cleared by the tower, I pull onto Runway 15 and smoothly push the throttle to the firewall for full takeoff power. The plane has been completely “re-rigged.” Every control cable and rod has been adjusted. Also the trim system, a mechanism designed to relieve control pressures on the yoke, has been replaced. I expect the plane to handle differently, but I don’t know how that will manifest.

The Devil’s in the details. This is what being a test pilot is all about. It’s invigorating.

My speed picks up. 35 miles per hour. 40 miles per hour. 45… 50… 55…

Tess is showing no interest in leaving the ground. In the past, her nose reached to the heavens around 55 miles per hour.

60 miles per hour… 65… I’m not alarmed: I know with the tail at the proper height she should stay glued to the runway until I do something about it. I hit 70 miles per hour and I ease back on the yoke.

She jumps into the air. The runway drops beneath us. I ease back a little more on the yoke to increase our climb angle and the yoke sticks. My heart skips a beat. Then the yoke moves smoothly again.

Did I imagine it?

The tower instructs me to turn on course to make way for a commuter jet taking off on the other runway. I bank right. Tess’s left wing lifts smoothly into the deep blue sky, the entire motion silky smooth.

South and west of the airport I put the newly refuib’d plane through the paces. It’s bumpy as hell this morning, winds tumbling off the mountains are creating mechanical turbulence as they ricochet off the buttes and mesas in the foothills. My notes on the clipboard look more like Greg Shorthand than English.

But the new trim system is fabulous. By moving a lever on the left side of the cabin I can drop the plane into a dive or nearly stand her on her tail without using the yoke. With fine adjustments, I can make her hold a level altitude “hands off” while flying slow, at cruise, or at balls-to-the-wall race speeds.

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She’s still wing-heavy to the right however, so we still have an adjustment to make there. I jot some more notes in Turbulence Shorthand, then head back for the airport. The wind is brisk on the surface now, and the tower gives me my choice of runways.

Being a professional Test Pilot, I choose the more difficult of the two. Ercoupes are excellent crosswind planes, and now that my rigging is improved I’m eager to put it to the test. I do a descending arc over the city and line up to Runway 20. The wind is coming from my left. Like a weather vane, Tess cocks sideways into the wind. I descend toward the runway flying sideways. This is how it’s done in an Ercoupe. I’ll touch down at a crazy angle and the forward motion of the plane, combined with her trailing link landing gear, will neatly pirouette her around as I hit the pavement.

I’m coming down at my approach speed of 80 miles per hour, faster than most general aviation airplanes land. I make tiny power adjustments with the throttle to keep my descent speed at 500 foot per minute. As I close in on the runway I pull back on the yoke to “flare,” a nose-up maneuver that bleeds off the excess speed right before touch down and sets the plane up at the proper angle to touch down on her main landing gear first, with the nose wheel touching down second.

It won’t move. The yoke is stuck fast.

I pull with all my strength, but I might as well be one of the unworthy strongmen trying to free Excalibur from the stone. Before I can say, “Oh shit!” I slam into the ground. A spray of fuel bursts from the nose tank. The gear compresses, and like a spring, catapults me back into the air again.

With still no way to move my elevator and get my nose up, I fall flat a second time.

I’m fifty percent terrified, fifty percent humiliated, and 100% mystified.

After the plane finally bounces to a stop, the yoke moves freely back and forth again, smooth as silk. I taxi back to the maintenance shop, and on wobbly legs, dismount and walk in. “How’d it go?” the boys asked.

“The elevator froze on landing,” I replied. Immediate frowns. Then a bustle of activity. Tess is quickly pulled into the hangar. Off comes her tail cone. Out comes the seat to access the control cranks. Flashlights are fetched, mirrors on long poles are brought out to check far corners. I describe what happened and they all congratulate me on my fine flying skill.

It all happened so fast I can’t be sure I did anything to be congratulated about.

At the end of 45 minutes there are several theories, but no smoking gun. Some tweaks are made. Some parts lubricated. And then its time for another test flight.

But this one is different. This time I know something is wrong and I’m going up to try to reproduce it. A whole different type of courage is required to climb into a plane that you know is not quite working right, than it takes to climb into a mystery plane.

Teenage testosterone-fueled dreams aside, I don’t have the Right Stuff to be a test pilot. At least not every day.

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.

 

Weather worries

I still don’t have an airplane. I’m frustrated, yes, but not worried. I’m confident my maintenance team will have me in the air in time for the first flight of the race season.

So it’s the weather that I’m worrying about.

Here’s why: Our first trip this season will take us out over the eastern plains of New Mexico, cut across the top of Texas, bisect Oklahoma, lob off the top of Arkansas, plow through the middle of Tennessee, and land us in western South Carolina. Then we’ll race through Georgia to central Florida. Homebound we’ll go up the gulf coast into Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and then angle home across the Lone Star State. All told, a nearly 3,000-mile, two-week journey that ropes in the first three races of the season.

By the time we get home from the first trip of the season, we’ll already be due for our first oil change.

It all looks simple enough on the big wall planning chart in our flight lounge. No tricky terrain. Easy-to-avoid military air space. Plenty of fueling options.

But the weather… Now that’s a different story. Weather is ever dynamic, ever changing. Especially over so long a course. I’m yet to see a day see a day when there wasn’t trouble somewhere along our planned route.

Of course, we’ll take it in baby steps. Carefully looking down-range a day at a time, with one eye on the next day. I have no real concerns. I know we’ll make it. I also accept the fact that there’s no way we’ll make it as planned. Although we’ve carefully marked out our fuel stops, planned where we think we’ll spend each night, and inquired about hangar space en route, I know the plan will fall apart in the teeth of the weather gods. We’ll have to deviate from our course. We may chase weather; it may chase us. We may have to set down and wait it out.

We might even get trapped somewhere.

Of course, that’s half the fun of flying by light airplane.

But still… I’m worrying about the weather…

 

Slow flight

Ah. So this is what it’s like to fly a hot air balloon. The view is fine, but our movement over the ground is so slow that it feels like we’re standing still. Nearby mesa tops remain stationary. Or nearly so. The minute hand sweeps across the face of my pilot’s watch and no landmark appears any nearer. Distant roads stay distant.

Frankly, it’s eerie. Having air race blood in my veins, I think I’d make a poor balloon pilot. Of course balloon pilots are immune from my current worry.

Rio consults the chart, “We’re still inside the VOR ring.”

The compass rose ring on the chart around Anton Chico VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) radio station is 25 miles across. We’ve been flying over this one for half an hour. Our ground speed indicator shows 36 miles per hour. This is ridiculous. And I’m starting to think about all those pilots who run out of gas and crash ten miles from their destinations.

I run the math again. In my head. Because my navigation system apparently can’t deal with speeds this slow. Normally my Garmin Pilot App displays a constantly updated ETE, or Estimated Time Enroute, telling me how much time it will take to get to my destination. Using it, I can quickly compare this remaining flight time estimate with my elapsed flight time, and know if I’ve got the gas to get where I’m going. But on this flight, anytime our ground speed drops below 45 miles per hour, the ETE screen goes blank—right when I need it the most.

Usually gas isn’t much of a worry for me, even though Ercoupes don’t have what most people would consider functional gas gauges. Instead, I know that if I put six-and-one-half inches of fuel in each wing tank I can fly for two hours. I measure the fuel depth with a clear plastic straw marked with a scale. That gives me a 200-mile range, more or less. For reserve, regulations require me to have an additional 30 minutes of fuel onboard, but my personal minimums are greater because we have a lot of open spaces between airports out here in the West. I consider my header tank to be my reserve: A full hour of fuel.

Today’s flight is only ninety miles. We’re ferrying Tess from her home base in Santa Rosa over Rowe Mesa to Santa Fe for her annual inspection. An annual inspection is a religious ritual in which you take your plane to the Maintenance Temple and make a sacrifice of a big pile of money so that the Maintenance Gods will grant you another year’s safe flying.

Yes, plane ownership is a religion.

Our speed drops. Again. We are at full power, in level flight, and our speed over the ground is—I kid you not—31 miles per hour.

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Luckily we’re half way to Santa Fe, because if we’d had to go this speed the whole way, the trip would have taken 2 hours and 54 minutes, leaving us with only six minutes of fuel on landing. Of course, I’d never fly the tanks that dry. I’d have aborted the attempt long before.

Still, I’ve burned through an hour of fuel already. I’ve got another hour in the wings, plus my reserve. At this speed we’ll just be tapping into the reserve on arrival. That’s OK. That’s what a reserve is for. But I confess, I’ve never bucked a headwind like this one, and I never thought I’d be worrying about fuel on a ninety-mile flight.

So what’s up with that? We’re flying into the teeth of an eighty-mile per hour gale, that’s what. A silent gale. An invisible gale. It’s sunny and the air is calm with only the occasional jolt to remind us we are passing through a fluid medium rather than sitting on a mountaintop taking in the view.

More bizarrely, Santa Fe is reporting calm winds. And even though my nav system is on strike about our arrival time, it still shows my altitude above the ground: We’re only 1,600 feet up. I consider dropping lower to try and get out of the winds but there are two problems. First, the terrain is rising and with both Rio and I aboard we’re close to our upper weight limit. That means Tess doesn’t climb well. Actually, even lightly loaded she’s not a fast climber. She’s not the kind of plane you want to barnstorm rising terrain in.

And the second problem is wind shear.

Wind shear is a violent difference in wind between two altitudes. And if you’re in 80 mile per hour winds at only 1,600 feet and it’s calm at the surface, it’s very likely that there will be a wind shear boundary between you and the surface. Wind shear can affect aircraft lift, so passing through it can cause a plane to momentarily stop flying and start falling. As I didn’t know how close to the surface the wind shear would be, I didn’t want to chance it. So we kept crawling over the ground up in the wind.

Rio jerks forward in his seat three times, like a jockey trying to urge a stubborn horse onwards. “Come on,” he growls.

I laugh. Then I run the numbers in my head again and start considering my options if our speed drops into the twenties. Can the head wind get so strong that we’d be moving forward through the air at 110 miles per hour but moving backwards over the ground?

Yes. Yes it can, but rarely this low. Winds that strong are usually high up in the atmosphere where airliners roam. Still if it gets much worse we won’t have the fuel to continue.

What then?

Plan A is to turn tails and run for home. As soon as I reverse course I know my 31 mph ground speed will jump to 190 mph as the headwind becomes a tailwind.

We can get home quickly. Very quickly.

Plan B is to turn south and strike out for the nearest airport for refueling, then climb back into the wind and slug it out again. But I comfort myself that even at 31 miles per hour, we can make it to Santa Fe.

Then our ground speed drops to 29 miles per hour.

But only for an instant. Then it increases to a blazing 35 miles per hour. I stay the course.

And we make it. Two-point-one hours on the Hobbs for a ninety-mile trip. Average time for the course: 42.86 miles per hour.

A most un-airplane like speed.

A repair gone awry

Black. Pitch black. The absolute absence of light. I’m trapped. And alone. But I’m alive and unhurt. And, finally, I can barely make out distant human voices filtering through the metal walls. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but after an eternity of silence there’s comfort in knowing that I’ve been found.

That a rescue is underway.

It’s hot. I breathe slowly. Keep my mind in a calm space. Not too much longer and I’ll get out of here…

 

The day started splendidly. After two weeks of killer stress, Tess was finally ready to fly again. The final diagnosis: Little flecks of rust from the copilot wing tank made their way through the various fuel filters and lodged in the carburetor float needle seat. This kept the needle from fully shutting off the flow of fuel when the bowl was full. That, in turn, caused the carb to overflow. The leaking fuel worked its way into the air intake, which is below the carb. The pool of fuel in the air intake pre-enriched the inbound air to the carb—so much so, that it caused the engine to stall right after starting.

The mechanic at Clovis, where Rio and I had been stranded weeks before by a plane that would start but not run even 10 seconds, had drained all the fuel, cleaned out the tanks, and put a smaller filter on the carb to catch any remaining particles. At our annual this year the offending tank will be removed and sent out for overhaul.

Sliding back into the cockpit again was soothing in the way a welcome easy chair might be at the end of a hard workday. I happily flipped familiar switches, prepped the plane for startup, and strapped myself in. She fired right up, sounding strong and steady.

I taxied down the long Taxiway Bravo, hung a right and glided past the terminal. The wind was from the north so I need to take off on Runway 4.

After runup and setting the mixture, I made my radio call and pulled onto the runway. Left hand on the yoke, right hand on the throttle I powered up and the damn plane jumped off the runway. It was so fast, such a short takeoff run, such a brisk climb that for a second I thought I must have been snatched off the ground by a tornado.

And as Tess and I rose into the cloudy afternoon sky, all my stress–my depression about the missed race costing me any chance of a Gold Champion trophy was left behind on the ground. Sure, victory is nice. But it’s really all about the flying. And after weeks of being grounded, I felt like I was back in my element. With each foot of altitude, my joy soared.

At the end of the runway I turned sharply to the left, toward the maintenance shop where I knew Rio stood at the window watching the takeoff. Perpendicular to the shop, I turned tail, wagged my wings, and was on my way.

It was the most beautiful flight that had no right to be. It was hazy, a hair bumpy, and I plowed through so many bugs that the view out the front was nearly obscured. But I was loving every minute of it.

Tess was performing like a thoughbred. Normally we have two power settings: Full forward to stay in the air, and reduce the throttle any amount you want to fall out of the air. Now I was backing off to avoid red-lining the engine. At 75% power, at 6,500 feet, the tach was barely short of the redline and I was plowing through the air with an indicated airspeed of 105 mph! Tess had never acting like this since she joined the family. I’m sure I had an idiot smile plastered on my face for hours.

Until the fuel gauge started to drop faster than ever before.

Do I carry on or land early for fuel? Now to the casual reader, that probably sounds like a stupid question, but my fuel “gauge” is a compass-like float on only one of my two interconnected tanks, and it’s notoriously unreliable. My best fuel gage is actually the timer on the radio. I put enough gas in the wings for three hours, and there’s enough for yet another hour in the header tank. But had the repairs changed our fuel consumption?

Passing Elk City, the gauge showed zero in the wings, but the fully reliable float gauge on the nose hadn’t dropped a bit.

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The Garmin said I had 29 minutes to go to get to my destination. Even if I was running on the nose tank now, I should have a good 30 minutes or more of spare fuel. Butterflies gnawed at my stomach for a minute as the Elk City airstrip slid beneath my wings. I weighed all the facts and committed to fly on.

24 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

19 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

14 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

The butterflies settled down.

9 minutes to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

I could see the hangars, the narrow strip of concrete running north-south. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank. I was nearly to my destination…

 

Thumping. Then a grinding of metal. A faint glimmer of light strokes my retina, reflects off my crumpled flight jacket. “Down here,” I finally hear a voice. Clear. Strong. Then, “Hang on, sir. We’ll have you out in a minute.” A screech of metal on metal and a blinding flash of light stabs into my prison. Cool air rushes in. I blink. Squint. Look up to see three pairs of feet above me. Two wear the heavy yellow boots of fully decked-out-for-battle firefighters. The other set belongs to a woman. Polyester blue pants. Barefoot.

A burly firefighter reaches his arm down, I grasp it, and he lifts me bodily up and out of the stranded elevator. Yep. After a perfectly safe flight and uneventful landing, I spent the better part of my night trapped in the frickin’ elevator at the Hampton Inn. Apparently a brush fire knocked out the power to the whole city moments after I stepped into the elevator to go to dinner. The hotel had a generator, but only for the hallway and stairwell lights. There was no emergency light in the elevator, and I remained in tomb-like darkness with a low cell phone battery and barely any signal. I was able to call Deb back in New Mexico, and she tried to call the front desk, but all the landlines were down as well.

Finally a young boy heard my banging on the door and alerted the front desk clerk, who called the manager at home, who flew across town (barefoot) in her car to a sister hotel to get the only elevator-opening key the two properties share, and met the firefighters (fresh from putting out the grass fire that caused the whole debacle) who eventually freed me.

I’m all for fresh experiences, but I really can’t recommend being stuck in an elevator.

Still, it sure beats the hell out of a plane crash.

Which is what you thought your were reading about, wasn’t it?

 

 

Racing from Warsaw

Frost on the taxiway lights. A bitter bite to the air. Winter is coming early up here in the mountains. I nudge the throttle forward for a little extra RPM to fully warm up Tessie’s engine before the race. The lead plane pulls forward, crosses in front of me, heads for the runway. Plane two pulls forward.

I’m in the eleventh position.

I tighten my shoulder belt. Then I notice my iPad mini—mounted just below the dash—is covered in fingerprints. I’ve got time to clean it real quick-like. I reach behind me and pull a lens-cleaning wipe from the pocket of the luggage compartment. I tear it open, remembering the lemon-scented hand wipes of my youth. The ones the Colonel gave out with the buckets of fried chicken.

Quickly, I wipe down the surface of the iPad. There’s a flash. My racecourse suddenly morphs. Changes. Instead of the roughly circular flight path, it looks like fallen scaffolding.

Even wrapped in a winter flight jacket, my blood runs cold.

This cannot have just happened.

Not only is my course messed up, but there’s a huge body of water where the San Juan Mountains should be. I zoom in to check the nearest city. Warsaw? My iPad squashed my race and moved it from Colorado to Poland?!

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How. Can. That. Be?

Plane three has passed, plane four is pulling out. I’m freaking out.

I quickly clear the flight plan and reload it from the main menu. Again Poland. Somehow, my racecourse has been deleted and replaced with a crisscross course north of Prague, east of Berlin, west of Minsk.

I whip out my cell phone and open Garmin Pilot on the phone. The race course is fine there. If I can sync the phone’s flight plans to the iPad I’m in business, but out on the ramp, I’m too far from the FBO. I don’t have wireless.

Plane five is moving.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit!!!

I do NOT want to fly a race in the mountains on a cell phone. The race briefing printout is on the seat next to me. I have the GPS locations for all six turns. But each location’s coordinates are made up of two strings of 16 digits. There’s no time to enter them all, and one typo could cause me to bust a turn.

There goes plane six.

The waypoints! Did the actual waypoints get corrupted, too? Frantically, I go to the waypoint menu. I always program each point in separately to draw the flight plan, then I turn them off again so that they don’t clutter up the map.

As plane seven pulls out, I toggle through the Pagosa waypoints. Start. Turn 1. Turn 2. Turn 3. Turn 4. Turn 5. Turn 6. Finish. Although I can see my breath in the cockpit, I’m bathed in sweat.

Plane eight pulls out and joins the line of taxiing race planes.

Back to the map. Will my waypoints show up in Europe or Colorado? Yes! They’re in Colorado.

Plane nine.

I try to draw the course line on the map, but in the cold air the touch screen isn’t responding.

Plane ten, Team Ely, pulls out. They’d have a good laugh if they only knew the chaos in my cockpit.

It’s my turn to taxi. I have no course, but I have the turn points. I can wing it. Literally and figuratively.

Plane after plane roars off down the runway and off onto the course. I do a rolling run up, checking my carb heat and mags. All I have left to do is set the mixture. One eye out the windscreen and one eye on the iPad, I try one last time. The screen responds to my touch. Ahead, the Elys pull sideways for their runup. I turn the yoke to swivel Tessie 45 degrees to the taxiway and bring the throttle up until the tach pegs at 2,000 rpm. Tess bucks and shakes. I ease the mixture back, slowly… slowly… slowly…

The rpm dips. I advance the mixture a hair, then throttle back. The Elys are moving into position on the runway. I advance to the hold line. I have 30 seconds left. My fingers fly across the iPad and the course line grows. From start to turn one. From turn one to turn two. From turn two to turn three…

The Elys begin their takeoff roll. The starter waves me forward. I release the brake. Turn four to turn five…

And as I line up, my finger extends the course to the finish line. I hit save.

The green flag drops. I advance the throttle to the firewall. I’m off. Racing from Pagosa Springs.

Not from Warsaw.