Weighty options

I let go of the yoke. One heart beat… Two heart beats…

The horizon rises in the windshield. Slowly at first, then faster. Up. Up. Up. Faster and faster still. The whisper of the wind turns into a roar. Then a howl. Twin tails rising high into the air, Tess nose-dives toward the earth like a Stuka dive bomber.

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The wind resistance tugs at the prop, red-lining the tachometer.  The vertical speed indictor shows 800 feet per minute down… 900 feet per minute… 1,000 feet… 1,200… The airspeed indictor snaps to the yellow line. I lose my nerve. My hand back on the yoke, I pull back. Gently. Firmly. The horizon, now above my head, slowly slides across the roof of the canopy, down the windshield, below the nose. We are straight and level again.

I turn to Lisa, who’s sitting calmly in the right seat, pencil poised over her knee board. “Well,” I say, “that wasn’t encouraging.” Clearly the new trim is not working right.

So much for a trouble-free return to service.

We return to the field, land, and my mechanics make an adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.

stuka

We return to the field a second time, land, and my mechanics make another adjustment. Back to the designated practice area. Back up to 8,500 feet. Again, the Stuka dive.

stuka

On the third try, we’ve run out of trim. It’s deployed 45 degrees into the slipstream, and still the elevator can’t hold the plane in level hands-off flight. Something is seriously amiss. Tessie has become mysteriously nose-heavy. Like our engine mystery of two summers ago, there’s no satisfactory and satisfying answer as to why this is so. But cause aside, we need a solution. And one solution to a nose-heavy airplane is to simply add some weight to the other end. And as the tail is much farther behind the center of gravity—that magic balancing point an aircraft in flight rests on and rotates around—than the nose is forward of the center of gravity, a little weight should go a long way.

Or so we thought.

Funny how many of the things we think  should work simply don’t with this stubborn little airplane.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the testing plan. Or with the details of the flights, one after another, after another, after another, after another. For most of a day. But we started by securing one-pound bags of “Sea Pearls” in Tessie’s tail. The bags are designed for scuba diver belts. They are small, flat, full of tiny lead shot, and surprisingly heavy for their size.

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Based on the weight and balance sheets, it shouldn’t have taken too many bags to get Tessie to fly right. The weights were placed 180 inches behind Tess’s center of gravity. One hundred and eighty inches is a loooooong lever with which to raise the nose. Or so we all thought.

But it was not the case. Seventy-five dollars’ worth of Sea Pearls later, I still had a plane the Luftwaffe would have been proud to deploy. With the maximum amount of added weight that my maintenance team felt was safe, we still couldn’t fly level. Oh, sure. It was better. The dives were slower. Less aggressive with each bag of Sea Pearls. But anything like level flight with neutral trim eluded us.

It was time for Plan B. Which was four washers installed along the bolts that secure Tess’s tail to her fuselage. Yep. We shimmed her tail. Then I went up to test fly.

No more Stuka.

But were the weights still needed? There was only one way to find out. Take some out, test fly, and see how many, if any, were needed with the shimming of the tail feathers. Again, I won’t bore you with the details of the flights. One after another, after another, after…

But in end, there were no Sea Pearls in Tessie’s tail and she flew true.

In fact, she’s never flown better.

Now, if we can just figure out why her brand-new attitude indictor is spinning like a top, and why her compass points the wrong way…

 

Little planes, big noise

I can’t make sense of any of the numbers and abbreviations, so I study the graph. A line starts in the upper left at point labeled “normal,” and descends at a roughly 45-degree angle down and to the right, ending below the point labeled “moderate-to-serve.” This line roughly bisects a blocky crescent-shaped graphic that resembles a weight-and-balance envelope.

The bottom part of the line is outside of the envelope.

That can’t be good.

But this isn’t weight and balance, and most of the line is within the envelope, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. At least, that’s what I tell myself until the doctor comes in to explain the results of my hearing test.

He whips out a pen and with careful, deliberate hash marks greys out everything above the line. “This is how much hearing you’ve lost,” he says.

More than half the hearing in my right ear. A good third of the hearing in my left.

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“You’ve completely lost your ability to hear high frequency sounds,” he explains in a loud voice, tapping the chart with his pen, “Like vowels.”

Ah. So that’s why everyone’s mumbling recently.

“Have you ever worked in a loud noise environment?”

My hearing may be failing, but in my mind I hear the cough of an airplane engine starting…

 

If you ask any pilot my age (over 55) what’s the biggest change in aviation they’ve seen in their lifetimes, you might expect them to say the advent of the glass cockpit. But it’s not. That’s just technology. Since the Wrights, aviation has been one tech leap after another: Radios, gyroscopes, the primitive “beam” navigation systems, VORs, autopilots, GPS, digital instruments, glass. It’s the nature of pilots to quickly adopt new toys, and it’s been that way for over a hundred years.

No, the biggest change in in aviation in my lifetime is the headset. In my youth, and for the decades of flying prior to that, no one took any serious action to protect their hearing. It wasn’t from a lack of technology, although like all else, that has improved. No, it was a matter of culture. Pilot culture. We just didn’t wear headsets. I’m not even sure why, but it just wasn’t done.

And I’m not quite sure how it happened, because culture is hard and slow to change, but now everybody wears headsets, and a good thing, too.

But it’s too late for me. Now I’m paying for the sins of my youth… Or I will be if I can afford to.

 

The insistent, slightly maddening ringing in my right ear is, ironically, caused by the fact I can’t hear anything worth a damn with it, according to the doc. Well, “ringing” doesn’t really describe it. It’s a high-pitched electrical sort of noise, deep inside my ear. It almost seems to come from the right third of my skull. It varies little in tone, although the volume varies throughout the day from barely noticeable to loud enough to block out conversations. It’s worse after flying, especially following long cross countries, and ironically much, much, much worse when wearing noise-canceling ARN headsets, instead of the old-fashioned passive models.

It was largely this ringing in my ear that brought me to the audiologist. I mean, I knew I was having some difficulty following conversations around the dinner table, and I’ve had a few comical miscommunications with Starbucks staff at various airports, which I am only now understanding were due to my lack of hearing, not to their lack of proper command of the King’s English, as I had previously assumed.

The good news, the doctor cheerfully tells me, is that my sort of hearing loss responds to simply “turning up the volume.” Of course, as we can’t turn up the volume on the entire universe without annoying the neighbors, I need hearing aids.

He gives me a thick packet of information on my various options. I deposit it in the circular file, unopened, as soon as I get home. You see, my health insurance—like most—doesn’t cover hearing aids and I can’t afford them.

The cost of one set of hearing aids of the type I need is equal to five annual inspections. (After owning a plane for a few years you’ll find that any time you think of money, it will be through the lens of aircraft maintenance costs.) So that’s not an option. At least not right now.

So I’ll turn up the TV. Ask my wife to speak up. And tell the girl at Starbucks that I’m hard of hearing, could she please repeat what she just said?

And I won’t worry if the engine sounds a little less loud. Unless it goes totally silent.

Then I’ll execute an emergency landing.

Or pony up for the hearing aids.

 

A real zero

He’s slow to pick up speed. The off-white hand of the airspeed indicator is creeping up the dial ever so slowly, as if the landing gear were rolling over wet grass, not over smooth asphalt. Huh. The power is good. The Tach reading right where it should be. The roar of the engine steady and strong through the heavy walls of my headset. The runway stripes are zipping toward me, under me, with increasing vigor. The yoke is light in my hand. My senses tell me I’m picking up speed. But the airspeed indicator says I’m only going… thirty-five miles per hour?

Boy, these big, wide runways really mess with your senses. I glace left. There’s a lot of asphalt beyond the wingtip. Santa Fe’s Runway 20 is twice the width of my home base’s widest runway. That’s an extra 75 feet.

Still… Warbler is eating up quite a bit of this wide runway… here comes the north ramp already… and I’m still on the ground. Not that there’s a shortage of runway in front of me, but what’s going on here? Power is good. Engine sounds fine. Still, here we are, more than a thousand feet down the runway and I’m going only 40 miles per hour. How can that be? Think! The plane is light. Quarter tank of fuel in each wing. No cargo… Only me onboard.

Ah, here we go! The nose is finally lifting… But wait. I’m still at 40. He shouldn’t be ready to fly yet. Not in these conditions. There’s hardly any headwind worth mentioning. This is all very strange. Very unusual.

The runway center stripes zip under the cowl with increasing urgency.

Tentatively, I pull back on the yoke and Warbler leaps from the runway, a stone shot from a trebuchet. Holy cow! The wings rock as I pass through an air pocket, I level them and steal a quick glance at the panel. My airspeed is now zero.

Zero?

The airspeed dial’s off-white needle is pointing straight up, giving me the middle finger.

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What.   The.   Hell… ?

They say it takes five seconds for a pilot to recognize when something has gone terribly wrong in an airplane, and to react to it. I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t time it. But I can testify that there’s definitely a deer-in-the-headlights moment while the brain deals with the unexpected. Before the body springs into action.

Of course, I hardly sprang into action. Actually, I did nothing. In hindsight, I should have chopped power and dropped back onto the runway. Assuming that I had had enough of it left to safely land and stop. I can’t say whether I did or didn’t, because I never considered it. Instead, I simply flew the plane, which is a legitimate response, and one of the first things you’re taught to do when something goes wrong.

At that moment, while I was processing all the conflicting data around me, the tower called, “Ercoupe 116, turn southwest, proceed on course.”

I think not. Time to end this test flight and get back on the ground. I thumbed the mike button, “Uh… 116 would like to return to the field.”

The response was immediate: “Make right traffic, Runway 20.”

Up to this second, I’ve been flying on auto pilot. Not a fancy mechanical marvel, but the martial arts muscle memory of tasks repeated time and again until the body does what’s needed without the brain wasting a neuron on it. But now it’s sinking in that I have no idea if I’m slow, fast, or just right. It’s a perverted aeronautical version of Goldie Locks and the Three bears.

Of course, in the old days pilots didn’t have airspeed indicators. Planes predate all of our gadgets. What was it my forbearers did to judge speed? Oh yes. They listened to the song of the slipstream across the bracing wires, the iconic “wind in the wires.”

No wires on an Ercoupe.

It suddenly dawns on me that rather than being an annoyance, this is a potentially dangerous situation. Sure, unlike most planes, if they get too slow ‘Coupes don’t stall. Not if they’re rigged right. Of course, Warbler has a brand-new tail. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m conducting a FAR 91.407 (b) post-major maintenance test flight to ensure that his flight characteristics haven’t changed. To ensure that he is  rigged right. Still, even perfectly rigged ‘Coupes develop what’s often called “profound” sink rates when they get too slow. Something to be avoided close to the ground like I am.

I’m not scared. Not at all. I’ve got a lot of time in these birds, and a fair bit in this very serial number. But I know I’ve got to think smart. I keep the throttle to the fire wall and hold the nose near the horizon. Screw the climb rate. Screw the pattern altitude. Gentle bank right. Level off. The runway drops behind my twin tails. Now a second turn. Nice and easy.

Should I let the tower know? They already suspect trouble. I told them this was a post-maintenance shakedown when I called for clearance. Should I advise them that I’ve lost my airspeed indicator and have no clue if I’m flying 55 miles an hour or 110? Well, what good would that do? It would seem to them a bigger emergency than it really is for me. For me in this plane.

I’m cleared to land. I’ve stayed high, kept the power up, and held the nose low. I know this makes me fast. Fine. I’ll bleed off the speed when I’ve got asphalt inches below my wheels. Down, down, down I come. The giant, wide runway rises up to greet me. I pull back on the yoke and Warbler skims the runway like a stone skipping over the calm waters of a pond, floating forever as taxiway lights shoot by on either side, then he gently settles to earth, rubber kissing the asphalt, still—according to his airspeed indictor—traveling at zero miles per hour.