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.

 

One hell of a crunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

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

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What… the… hell…?

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

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

I had no idea.

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

Quite the crunch.

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

I flew home.

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

Until Lisa moved in next door.

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

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

And that’s when I saw it.

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

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

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.

 

Death by a thousand pinpricks

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$15.00 for an air filter…

And on it went…

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

Well, until next year.

 

Officially not good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Paint tale

“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:

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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:

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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:

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And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:

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I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:

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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:

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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.

My family lives in a big universe.

 

Next week: Rio and I finally agree on something.

Raid and Search

Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.

To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.

Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”

The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.

I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.

Then all the men starting laughing.

“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”

Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?

We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.

“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.

I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”

It was a grim image to contemplate.

“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.

Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”

Amen to that.

We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.

Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”

So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.

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In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.

The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.

Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!

 

You are now free to move about the country

Low enough. Far enough. Great food. Good hotel. North Texas Regional was the only logical destination for our break-in flight. Plus, most of the flight path is over open prairie and farmland with abundant places to put down safely if the new engine craps out.

About the only inhospitable terrain on the entire route is a short stretch of rough canyon country south of Amarillo.

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Naturally, that’s where it happened…

Thump! The plane shudders. The prop protests with an odd whine. Probably just an air pocket. Turbulence from a thermal. Nothing more than a pothole in the sky.

A strong smell of engine exhaust fills the cockpit.

Lisa and I exchange somber glances. That tense spot between my shoulders, which had largely faded away, is suddenly back with a vengeance. I study the engine monitor. RPM good, and steady. Oil pressure and temp in range, and steady. The two back cylinders are running hotter than their sisters in the nose of the plane, but all are steady and well below redline.

Then I see it: The exhaust gas temperature on the number two cylinder is… dancing? The blue bar on the CGR-30P engine monitor is jumping up and down. First showing 1,423 degrees, then indicating 1,215 degrees, next 1,372 degrees. The other three blue EGT bars are steady. Number two continues to vacillate. What could cause such a thing? Would a stuck valve cause erratic gas temps? I cock my head to one side, listening for any odd rhythms from the engine. All sounds good.

Below my wing canyons, ragged rocks, juniper trees. I ease the yoke back and start a shallow climb. Our planned refueling stop, at Childress, is still 20 Maalox moments… I mean minutes… away.

It’s the closest airport.

But other than the dancing EGT all appears well. The dull roar of the engine is steady, unchanging. Power and pressures perfect. All other temps in range. Healthy. There’s nothing to indicate a problem. I ask Lisa to email our mechanic: Should we worry? It’s a pointless exercise. It’s Saturday. He won’t read our missive until Monday. By then, either we’ll be back home or we’ll be in a crumbled pile of metal at the bottom of a canyon.

We fly on, the number two EGT the metronome to the silent song my engine is playing. The tense spot between my shoulders grows and spreads.

At last the badlands pass behind our tails, I back off on the throttle and drop back down to 800 feet. It’s my new favorite cruising altitude, 300 feet higher than race flying and the required minimum altitude to overfly any building, vehicle, boat, person, outhouse or henhouse—and higher than most cell phone towers are tall—while still down close enough to the ground to reveal all the interesting things there are to see. It’s also maximizing our odds of properly seating the piston rings on our new cylinders.

Finally, I roll into the pattern at Childress. The name rang a bell when we planned the flight, but I couldn’t conjure up a mental image of the place. We’ve landed at so many airports these last two years that they’re all a jumble in my head. Now that I see it below, the taxiway new black asphalt standing out in stark contrast to the old faded grey runway, I remember it as the place Lisa momentarily lined up on the taxiway coming in for a landing last year on our way home from the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race. Normally I would tease her by asking if I should land on the one on the left or the one on the right, but I’m still worried about our engine. In fact, we’ve flown in near silence since the EGT started its erratic dance.

We glide down over the cotton fields and gently kiss the runway. As I throttle back the EGT drops to zero. We taxi to the fuel pumps, shut down, and get out the tool kit. The air is chilly, but the engine metal hot as I open up the cowl and peer in. I honestly don’t know what I expect to see. There’s no splattered oil on the cylinder. The exhaust stack is intact. I stare at the new probe that measures the temperature of the exhaust. The band that holds it in place is oddly oval, but then I realize that I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

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The probe on the forward cylinder is nearly out of sight, so I decide to pop open the cowl on the copilot side so I can see what the probe looks like on the other side. It also has the oddly-shaped band, but I notice that there’s a spring over the wires that’s in a different spot. I go back to my side of the plane and poke at the sensor.

It falls out.

Ah. Problem solved. A wonky sensor, that’s all. I push it back into place and reset the retaining spring. I have no great expectation that my fix will hold, but at least I know the readings are nothing to worry about.

I check the oil and find the level hasn’t budged, a new experience for me, as our “old” engine was as fond of oil as an alcoholic sailor is of rum. I stretch, rotate my arms to loosen the knot in my back, and look around. Then it occurs to me: I’m 250 miles out from our home base, and our only issue on engine #3 is a loose sensor.

After all these months grounded, after two failed engine rebuilds, we’re back. We’re truly back in the air and free to move about the country.

 

Test Flight

I’m scared. I don’t think I’ve ever been scared to get into an airplane before; much less into one I’ve flown to the ends of the earth and back. But today, I’m scared to get into Tessie. I don’t even mind the extra stop at Walgreens on the way to the airport to pick up critical supplies for the family larder: Velveeta cheese sauce pouches.

When I enter the maintenance hangar, Tess is once again a fully assembled airplane. I’m greeted by one of the mechanics with, “Hey, it’s early Christmas!” He has an ear-to-ear smile on his face, “I bet you couldn’t be happier, huh?”

“Actually,” I confess, “I’m scared to death.”

He wants to know why and I ask him to consider the last two engine rebuild attempts. By the same guy that did the work on this engine, Engine3 as I sometimes call it.

His smile dissolves.

Still, maybe the third time is the charm. But I woke up under a dark cloud this morning, wondering if I’d be alive at the end of the day. As my coffee brewed I figured there was a 50% chance the engine would vomit out all its oil on the first test flight. If so, I figured there was a 25% chance I’d have to put down short of the airport. If so, I figured there was a 15% chance the crash would kill me. So really, I realized as I took my first sip of coffee, my odds of surviving the day were about the same as they would be if all I did was drive into town for the Velveeta cheese sauce pouches.

But I was still scared.

The plan is simple. Get in the plane. Take off. Fly around the pattern once. Land. Even if the third-time-is-the-charm engine belches out oil at the same rate as before, the odds strongly favor being on the ground before I run out of oil. Of course, the pessimist in me knows it’s possible that this new engine will belch out oil at an even higher rate; while the optimist on my other shoulder points out that this is not really the same engine as number one and number two. The Master Builder kicked the save-time engine case we bought to the curb. Tess’s original case is back. It also features a deeper breather tube, something many mechanics that read about our troubles wrote to say might be part of the problem, while at the same time admitting that they’d never heard of this kind of high volume oil loss on the ground.

Still, I would feel better if the ground run had been able to reach the magic RPM where the previous engines blasted oil from the breather tube; and I’m upset that this engine seems to have less power than the two previous incarnations.

I do a careful walk around. Tess has gotten dusty during her months-long grounding. The fuel tanks are a lot lower than I expected too, I guess from the endless ground tests. Or maybe evaporation over the ensuing half-year. Still, there’s plenty of fuel for what needs to be done this morning. I’m not going far.

Then it’s time. I can’t put it off any longer. “Let’s pull her out,” I say to the guys.

The massive double doors of the hangar are pulled back. It’s cold outside, with a light breeze from the north, damn it. I watch a Piper rise into the air. The tower is using Runway 2, which means I’ve got a long taxi to the active, the worst thing possible for breaking in the new engine’s piston rings. Well, that’s a secondary worry at this point.

I mount the wing, swing a leg over the fuselage wall, step into the cockpit, and slide down onto the seat. I pull the canopy sides up and settle in. Welcome home, Tess seems to say to me.

Master on. Throttle cracked. Mixture full rich. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Foot solidly on the brake. I take a breath and gently press the starter button with my left index finger. The prop spins and the engine roars to life, strong and smooth.

I keep the RPM on the high side to warm the oil, listen to the ATIS, and call ground control for taxi clearance. It’s a busy morning. I need to hold short of Runway 33 en route to my assigned Runway 2.

After what feels like an eternity, I finally arrive, do my run up, and I’m cleared for takeoff. I pull out on to the runway and advance the throttle smoothly to the firewall. There’s a tremendous racket from the engine. What the….!?

Then I realize I’ve forgotten to engage the automatic noise reduction on my Zulu 3 headset. I quickly reach down and feel for the button. As I depress it, the roar of the engine dissolves into a weed whacker-like clicking. The center stripes of the runway slide under me, faster… faster… faster… and with a gentle backpressure on her yoke, Tess lifts into the cold morning air. The RPM tops 2400. Will she blow oil? I try to keep one eye on the engine monitor and one eye out the windshield.

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Oil pressure 45 psi. It’s time to turn crosswind.

The climb rate seems good, but I’m alone in the plane, it’s cold, and the fuel load is light. I can’t really judge if it’s more powerful, but the RPM is better than we ever got out of the old engine.

Oil pressure 45 psi. It’s time to turn downwind.

I start to level off. A red light flashes on the panel. I’ve redlined the engine. I throttle back to keep it in the yellow. I clear the alarm and at once the red light starts blinking again. I back off on the throttle more. Then still more. Now the throttle is at only 50%. Holy cow. OK, this baby has the same power engines One and Two had. Maybe more.

Oil pressure 45 psi.

I’m competing for the runway with a corporate jet. The tower asks me to cut in early and land. I have to drop to idle for the descent. My landing, the first in 83 days, is nothing to be proud of and I cringe as I taxi back to my waiting mechanics. They’re both under the plane as soon as I kill the engine. I slide the canopy open. “No oil!” they announce from beneath my wings.

I sit and digest this news. I should be happy. Hell, I should be deliriously happy. But I’m just tired. Worn out from months of worry. And there’s still a second test flight to make before I can get out Tess’ logbook and write: “This aircraft has been test flown and found to be in airworthy condition.”

But at least I’m not scared any more.

 

First fire

It’s cold. Bone-chillingly cold. The wind whips the heat out of my black flight jacket as soon as the sun kisses it. My soul is cold, too. And I’m nervous. Tense. The muscles in my legs throb, my shoulders are tight. I’m standing on the tarmac in Santa Fe outside the maintenance shop, looking at Tessie and the naked engine bolted onto her nose. My mechanics, like me, are so unsure of this thrice rebuilt engine that they’ve done nothing more than the bare minimum installation to test it.

Then it’s time. Time for the first power test. My chief mechanic looks around to be sure we are all well clear, then he presses the starter button. Without a second’s hesitation, the new engine transforms from silent, cold metal parts to a living, breathing thing.

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He keeps the power low, letting the oil warm up, letting the moving parts stroke each other for the first time. I cock my ear to one side. There’s nothing quite wrong, really, but something’s not quite right, either. Rio leans toward me, “She sounds rough,” he shouts.

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Hmmm…. No. Not rough. More an absence of smooth. And an absence of the proper baritone. After a time, the engine is shut down. Various parts poked, prodded, and inspected. Then a second start. This time my mechanic slowly advances the throttle. Tess bucks and strains. Her tail quivers. The loose bottom cowl rattles in the slipstream of the prop. The volume increases as more and more power is fed to the engine. The prop is now a near-invisible grey disc.

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But I barely see it. My eyes are riveted to the black breather hose coming out the bottom of the engine. I wait to see if an ugly brown jet of oil will burst forth. I can’t tell whether or not the engine is at full power, but the wing tips are quivering. Still no oil.

Five seconds.

Ten.

Fifteen.

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

Twenty-five.

Thirty.

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No oil. I lose track of the seconds. Still staring at the tube, I’m focusing on the sound of the engine, trying to conjure up the sound of the previous build attempt. Something’s different. It’s somehow more anemic. Something in the waves of sound coming off the front of the plane is less smooth. My legs throb. My shoulders are concrete.

Then the volume drops, steadily, steadily, steadily. Then silence, except for the wind. The prop becomes visible, spins two lazy rotations, then stops.

No oil.

I walk up to the cockpit as my mechanic slides the canopy down. I should be happy, I suppose. But I’m not. He doesn’t look happy either. “I could only get twenty three fifty out of it,” he says.

I don’t comprehend. Not until it’s spelled out to me. The previous two versions of this engine blew oil when the RPM hit 2,400. This engine isn’t generating enough power to prove it won’t do the same. My mechanic theorizes it’s the cold day. The atmosphere is thicker. The prop has to fight harder to slice though the air.

I don’t buy it.

“At least that’s better than the old engine ever gave us,” he adds helpfully. This stray fact does nothing to improve my mood. I’m cold, stressed, and depressed. I head back into the heat of the hangar to process all I’ve seen, heard, felt.

I’m bothered by the fact that this engine doesn’t seem as strong as the previous versions. Of course, those two were grossly defective. I suppose whatever mysterious aliment they suffered from may have made them abnormally powerful as a side benefit. If so, this is an improvement.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

Still, there’s nothing more we can do on the ground. Up in the sky, flying, we’ll get a higher RPM. We’ll have to take wing to see if the engine will start vomiting out its oil. Semi-retired, for the moment, as an air race pilot, I’m about to start my new career.

As a test pilot.

We talk protocol. What’s best for the engine vs. what’s safe, given all that’s transpired. I propose a 30-minute test flight, never leaving glide distance from the airport. My mechanic says he’d like something a little more conservative.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I was thinking more of just once around the pattern,” says my mechanic. I bow to superior experience. Not to mention the unspoken worries of the man I’m entrusting my life to.

So that’s the plan. Once the engine is fully re-installed, with its baffling, cowling, nose bowl, spinner, and all the rest, I’ll come back. I’ll take off. I’ll keep a hair low, with a slightly long downwind leg to try to get into full power cruise configuration, then land for inspection.

Hopefully Tess’s belly will be clean and dry. But if it’s slick with oil, based on the previous oil loss we’ve seen, she’ll still have some left in her sump. All things being equal, it’s a safe test. But I have zero trust in this engine, given all that’s transpired over the last five months. Still, the flight doesn’t scare me. It’s logical. Well considered. As safe as we can make it.

If that flight goes well, I’ll take a second hop. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe 45. Again I’ll land for inspection. If she passes that test, then a ferry flight back home is in order. Depending on the wind, and what this new engine will really do, that’s an hour or an hour and a quarter. Then, and only then, will we undertake the break-in flight. Hopefully these extra flights won’t forever ruin the engine’s piston rings, but there’s no choice, given the events we’ve been though. Taking off cold for a break-in flight would be crazy.

Insane, even. And in hindsight, maybe it was all along.

And when will I feel confortable taking a passenger, or my son, up again? When, and only when, I trust the engine.

How long will that take? I don’t know. I suspect that as I walk up to my trusty steed, the muscles in my legs will throb, and my shoulders will be tight, for a long time to come.

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A change of hearts

OK, forget everything I said last week. If the damned engine ever gets back on the plane, we’re not going to follow our original break-in plan. I’m going to do it by myself. Or at least the first part of it.

Now, in case you’ve forgotten, back in early September the freshly rebuilt engine was bolted onto Tess and I innocently planned a break-in flight. My flight plan had us taking off from Santa Fe early in the morning, turning south and shooting down the gap between the northern tips of the Sandias and Rowe Mesa at low altitude, turning east at Moriarty, then barnstorming at 500 feet AGL across the empty wastes of eastern New Mexico and over our home base of Santa Rosa—where the colors on the sectional chart change from khaki to pale yellow, telling us we’d be below 5,000 feet. On we’d fly into West Texas, our nose pointed toward Herford, a town southwest of Amarillo, where we’d stop for fuel. All of this was planned for an optimal break-in: The lowest possible altitude; minimal low RPM ops; no long descents; landing with some power; and keeping the taxi as short as possible.

Next, we’d fly to Palo Duro Canyon to follow the wide dry wash called Prairie Dog Town Fork. This is where the sectional map changes from pale yellow to tan. We’d then be below 3,000 feet for the first time on the flight. A scant thirty miles farther on, at a random lat-long, the color on the sectional map changes to sage green and the terrain below our wings would stand at 2,000 feet above sea level. We would have travelled 349 miles to reach this point. There’s no closer low-lying land. From there we’d turn northeast and follow the edge of the escarpment until we reached Weatherford, OK, elevation 1,605 feet.

The next morning we’d do it all again. In reverse. Then it would be time for the new engine’s first oil change.

Of course, as you all know, that flight never got beyond Santa Fe’s Class D airspace. The engine vomited out all its oil in minutes. As it was really part of the racing story, I wrote about it for GA News, and was roundly criticized by my readers for having a “passenger” along during a “test flight.”

Huh?

First off, it wasn’t a test flight. It was a break-in. Secondly, Lisa is a pilot, and a common (if not required) crewmember, so I never think of her as a passenger. That said, I do know the statistics on engine failures after rebuilds, and she and I discussed the issue at great length. She accepted the risk and basically threatened to chain herself to the propeller if I refused to take her along. But then she also insisted that we create a series of customized engine failure checklists for each runway we might use, and procedures at each altitude—a degree of safety I probably wouldn’t have bothered with on my own.

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Still, I never thought of it as a test flight. Only an engine break-in.

But the story doesn’t end there. Remember last week when I told you that the flight instructor I use for my flight reviews declined to help me with my current currency issue? He followed that up with an email that quoted 14 CFR Part 91.407, a Federal Aviation Administration regulation titled, “Operation after maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, or alteration.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but the crux of it is that it’s verboten to carry a passenger in a plane after any maintenance that “may have appreciably changed its flight characteristics,” until the airplane has undergone an operational check, and that flight is logged in the airplane’s records. The Feds don’t use the word “test flight,” and any pilot with a Private ticket or higher can undertake the operational check. The section also includes several exceptions, including one that says a ground check will suffice if the rebuild “has not appreciably changed the flight characteristics or substantially affected the flight operation of the aircraft.”

Soooooo….. Does a simple engine rebuild fall under this regulation? As it turns out, that’s a hotly debated subject, but one that I’ve been thinking a lot about since the reg was pointed out to me. On the surface, I’d say, no, it doesn’t. At least not for most rebuilds. If you follow the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for overhauling the engine, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in performance before and after a rebuild—except when looking at the balance in your checking account. And it certainly wouldn’t cause an “appreciable” change in flight characteristics. Even if you put off the overhaul until your engine was getting pretty doggy, you might find your plane had quite the spring back in its step, but it wouldn’t fly differently. I personally feel that the intent of the law is aimed more at things like the installation of vortex generators, which totally change takeoff performance.

On the other hand, we didn’t just rebuild our C-85 engine. We (legally) converted it to a 0-200 stroker. That’s mainly for ease of parts availability, and while the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) paperwork says there’s no power change, most people I talked to reported a lovely increase in horsepower. Was that because they put off the rebuilds so long that it just seemed better compared to their worn out engines, or does the stroker really deliver more oomph?

The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if my “new” engine fell under 91.407, but the coffin on my original plan wasn’t nailed tightly shut just yet.

But the next nail came swiftly. Now, I’ve been behind on my reading. I have no excuse for that because it’s not like I’m busy flying, or anything. But two nights ago, I finally got to the August issue of AOPA Pilot. As I was thumbing though it, I came across Mike Busch’s excellent Savvy Maintenance column. And guess what? Yeah. He was talking about the damn 91.407, and it sounded like he was talking directly to me.

He was quick to point out that the regulation isn’t clear about what types of maintenance require a “test flight,” but he specifically talked about a crash following an engine overhaul. Well, a crash plus a second almost crash, both of which, thankfully, had happy endings—at least for the people in the planes, if not for the planes themselves.

In the first crash the pilot had his girlfriend and her two young children aboard on an Island-hopping day adventure in Puget Sound, Washington. Busch caustically wrote, “I can’t help asking what possessed this pilot to conduct his initial post-maintenance test flight (immediately following an extensive engine teardown and propeller overhaul) on an overwater flight with a cabin full of passengers, including young children.”

Well, at least I had the sense not to take my son with me on the first flight, but maybe I wasn’t taking this seriously enough, even so. I gave the article to Lisa.

She’d previously read the readers’ comments and the CFI’s email. The next day she told me she’d read the article and that she decided that when we get the engine back, I should orbit the Santa Fe airport—solo—for an hour or so, land, inspect, then fly solo back to our home base. If all was well, on another day we could make the formal break-in flight to sage green on the sectional chart as a team.

She reflected for a moment, then added, “the Universe usually needs to tell me something two or three times, but eventually I listen.”

Yeah. Me too.