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.

IMG_6777

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.

IMG_6765

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.

IMG_6758

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.

IMG_6784

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.

IMG_3320

 

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.

IMG_1666

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.

 

Visions of an empty future

My hangar, of course, is still empty. And it’s going to be that way for at least another month and a half. By the time I have our plane back, I’ll be out of currency and it will be illegal for me to take up a passenger until I’ve carried out three takeoffs and landings. How I’m going to work that into the minimize-the-landings-to-break-in-the-engine thing I don’t know. I may have to rent someone else’s plane before our test flight, just for the stupid takeoffs and landings. But I’ve yet to hear any updates from the mechanics, so that’s a problem for another day.

But back to the empty hangar.

On our way back from the STEM Expo I told you about last week, we stopped at the hangar to drop off our trophies and rubber chickens. It was strange, spending one day in a hangar teeming with noise, motion, and people—and the next day standing in quiet solitude in another hangar.

IMG_2615

But as I returned my trophies to their shelf, I had a stunning revelation. There’s going to be a lot more empty hangar in my future. And it makes me both happy and sad at the same time. Here’s the story:

For background, in case I never told you, the family plane isn’t mine. I’m her pilot, but the plane belongs to my mother. She originally bought it as an investment. Yeah, that didn’t work out too well, at least, not in the financial sense. But as an investment in fun and adventure for her, the payoff has been beyond all expectations. So my mother holds the title, and she has willed N3976H straight to my son Rio. I’m the trustee until he’s of age, but Tess goes from her to him.

I just keep the oil warm.

Mom is still alive and well and Rio is only fifteen, so I don’t give this much thought. At least I didn’t until this weekend. No, Mom is fine, but Rio—pretty much for the first time—is talking seriously about college. He has his eyes set on aeronautical engineering; a good fit for him, and a career field that’s going to be wide open for his age group. At the Expo he spent quite a bit of time talking to engineering students from the different colleges in the state. Prior to this weekend, he’d had his eye on the excellent (but pricy) Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Embry-Riddle actually has a campus here in New Mexico, but the local campus is pilot training orientated; and while there are a number of mechanical engineering programs at the state universities, none focus as narrowly on aerospace as he’d like.

But he had an eye-opening conversation with one new graduate who’d discovered that he was unable to land a job because he didn’t have a master’s degree. This led to a conversation about an accelerated BS/MS program at one of our State’s universities that Rio liked the sound of. While not a full-fledged aerospace program, it had an option of an aerospace emphasis.

Rio and I chatted about it at dinner after the Expo. I told him that while I felt a more generalized course of study wouldn’t be as interesting, it had two advantages: It would give him more career options; and it might make him a better engineer, as he could bring a wider perspective to bear on a problem. As an afterthought I also told him if he was going to school instate, he could fly home with his dirty laundry each weekend in his Ercoupe.

His dark brown eyes lit up at the prospect.

Standing in the empty hangar the next afternoon it hit me: He’ll be off to college in three years. Hopefully, his grandmother—now 91—will still be alive at that point, but it’s only appropriate that he take his plane with him when he goes off to study aerospace engineering, whether or not he uses it to come visit his lonely empty nest parents on weekends. It will let him continue to build hours and experience, keep his awareness of the needs of pilots sharp, and is likely to make him (even more) popular with the ladies. Ah… to be young and to have an airplane of one’s own…

But when this happens, I won’t have a plane to fly anymore. At least not one waiting eagerly for me in my hangar, mine to fly whenever I choose.

In three short years, all my nests will be empty. Home, hearth, and hangar.

Biggest, baddest, longest ever

I’m seeing red. A giant swath of red. I knew it was coming, it had to, but… Wow. I just didn’t expect it to be this damn big. So much red… the color of warning, the color of danger. The color, it so happens, that Garmin chose to mark TFRs—Temporary Flight Restrictions—on their interactive flight charts.

Have we talked about TFRs before? They’re special, short-term pieces of prohibited air space. There’s one that follows the president wherever he goes, a red cloud of Keep Out airspace floating over his head. Other TFRs are established over open arena sporting events. Still others over fire fighting operations. The one I’m looking at now is for “disaster response and recovery efforts.” It’s over the city of Houston, still reeling from the massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

And like all things in Texas, the TFR is big.

I set my FlightPad down on the kitchen table, and gently place a fingertip on each side of the red trapezoid. The measuring tool in the app pops up. The Texas-sized TFR is 130 miles wide.

A 130-mile wide disaster area.

IMG_0278

And this TFR isn’t as temporary as its name implies. It’s not set to expire for eight more days. During that time, from the surface to 4,000 feet all flying is banned, including drones, except for flights engaged in rescue efforts coordinated by the Texas Air Operations Center.

I see a smaller 18-mile wide TFR embedded in the larger one. A TFR within a TFR? Curious, I touch my finger to it. The details pop up: Hazard—Gas leak.

Holy cow.

Like the rest of the country, I was glued to the Weather Channel as Harvey made a run for Texas coast and came ashore, but my schedule has kept me away from TVs since. Naturally I’ve listened to CNN’s coverage on my satellite radio, but with no visuals it’s been hard for me to really grasp the scope of the disaster.

But this simple red trapezoid on a map unfolds the story for me in a way a thousand news photos couldn’t. More than 6,000 square miles of Texas air space is closed for rescue operations. That’s 6,000 square miles of human suffering, of fear, of pain. Thousands of souls, lost—for a time—in that sea of red.

It’s hard to imagine, even in Texas, where everything is bigger.

 

Where’s Waldo?

I’m surrounded by people. More people than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time in my life. It’s a solid mass of humanity, nearly impossible to navigate through. My eyes dart left, then right. I squeeze my way forward and scan the wall of bodies again and again, looking for the floppy hat. The red plaid shirt. Somewhere, lost in this sea of people, is my son.

It’s late Saturday afternoon at AirVenture, and the entire aviation universe (and most of the population of Wisconsin) has gathered on the flightline to take in the Blue Angles, the Night Airshow, and the famous Wall of Fire.

FullSizeRender

I’m not worried about his safety. It’s not like I’ve misplaced a toddler. My son is a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old. But he’s a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old lost somewhere in a Where’s Waldo panorama of people.

A smart, mature, capable 15-year-old who has lost his cell phone.

People. Everywhere people. If you combined the crowds from the World Cup, the Pope’s Easter blessing, and a mob seeking free Rolling Stones tickets, I doubt it’d add up to this many faces.

Rio, planning a career as an aeronautical engineer, has spent the entire week at workshops getting hands-on perspective on aircraft building techniques. He tried his hand at three types of welding, worked with rivets and sheet metal, built wing struts with wood, and even formed composites. While he was off learning the tools of his future trade, my wing-woman Lisa and I were plying the tools of our trade, traveling across the grounds on our General Aviation News press passes, Lisa taking images and me jotting down notes for stories.

Most of Rio’s workshops ran long during the week, usually 10-15 minutes longer than their time slots, so Lisa and I weren’t worried much when we got caught in an epic traffic jam inbound for the airshow as we made our way back from visiting the Sea Plane Base.

His composite materials 101 was to end at 3:45 p.m. At 4:02 on the dot Lisa and I found the workshops and forums an empty wasteland. We both looked at our watches. Then looked around. No Rio. Huh. Thinking he went in search of food, I texted him.

A few minutes later I got a text back: This phone is at the lost and found.

Holy… shit.

Rio—somewhere—at AirVenture, on the busiest, most crowded day of the week, with no phone. As I tried to process the information the Blue Angles ripped across the sky, the crackling high pitched scream of their engines drowning out all other sound.

I knew what I had to do. I had to think like a 15-year-old.

Between jet passes Lisa and I created a battle plan using fractured sentences and gestures. The first thing that occurred to me was that he would go to Race Central. It’s a tent right on the flightline at the mouth of the race corral, where the race fleet parked after the AirVenture Cup. With Tess down for maintenance, she wasn’t there, but the other racers are the closest thing we have to family at AirVenture, and the tent the closest thing we have to a home on the grounds. I would head for Race Central while Lisa would head up to the place we had parked that morning. As we had planned to go home after Rio’s workshop and pick up the rest of the family for the night airshow, we thought he might have figured the simplest thing to do was meet us at the car. Of course, Lisa and I had moved the car in the meantime, but Rio would have had no way to know that.

I had the shorter walk, but with the crowds I arrived at the Race Tent about the same time Lisa got to “L” lot. She texted “negative contact.” I told the AirVenture Cup crew that I’d lost my copilot. They hadn’t seen him.

Where next?

Slowly, painfully, I worked my way through the crowd of crowds toward the Vintage Red Barn, where the type clubs have booths. I thought Rio might take refuge with the Ercoupe Owners Club. But when I got there the barn was empty. Meanwhile, Lisa headed for the scooter rental return booth to see if Rio had turned in his ride yet (I sacrificed exercise for education so he could be easily mobile on his own again this year).

Negative contact.

Where next? On the first day we all planned a meet-up after different missions on the west side of Boeing Plaza. Would he think to use that as a fall back rendezvous location? As I set out in that direction I got a text from Race Central. Rio spotted there. I texted back, have him stay put. I’m coming.

Their reply: He already left.

I worked my way through the throng of people, back down the flight line when a mass of polished aluminium blocked my way. The B-29 “Doc” was being brought slowly through the crowd to its parking place in Boeing Plaza.

You have got to be kidding.

I detoured deeply into the grounds, skirting the south, west, and north sides of the plaza, and finally back to the flightline. As I closed in on the Race tent I saw the familiar floppy hat that Rio bought at Reno last year.

He’d returned “home,” thank God.

We were reunited. Waldo and William in one corner of the mass of people. Together again.

 

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?”

Image-house-flood-clip-art

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.

IMG_8513

“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.

DSC_5162

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 9.17.12 AM

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.

IMG_7935

“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?

DSC_4681

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 9.10.31 AM

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.

IMG_7952

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.]