Conundrum

The Law sayeth, “no person may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days.” It’s called currency. Generally, I fly so much that I never need to give currency a second thought. But thanks to my ongoing engine rebuild saga, my logbook, just like my wallet, is quickly running out of currency.

My most recent flight was on September 3rd. But it only had one takeoff and one (emergency) landing. Prior to that, I need to go back to July 24th when I flew a rented Ercoupe back to its owners in Arkansas after the Air Venture Cup. Let’s see here, counting 90 days from July 24th gets me to… October 22nd.

Which is this coming Sunday.

Two days from now.

If by some miracle Tessie were put back together today (Ha!) I could grab my copilot and re-attempt the break-in flight. But otherwise, I have a legal problem.

Of course, it’s not an unsolvable problem. It’s just proving to be a dammed difficult one.

Here’s the tale: My mechanic isn’t a guy you can pin down on dates, and doesn’t understand the concept of a deadline. Things get done when they get done. I suspect his father and his grandfather worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles, or maybe the Post Office. Still, as of today, my Mark III engine—my laugh or cry nickname for the third attempt at getting my engine working—isn’t even on the test stand yet, much less on the airplane.

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Realistically, we’re looking at sometime around Thanksgiving before I have a (hopefully) airworthy airplane again.

At least we’ll have much to be thankful for this year.

But back to the law. The lack of the three landings doesn’t prevent me from flying solo. It’s just a restriction on carrying a passenger. The normal solution to this situation is to just jump into your airplane and do three quick takeoffs and landings while your passenger is unloading the luggage from the car.

But there’s nothing normal about my next flight. The plane will basically have a new engine. A new engine born and installed at high altitude, which is a problem for an aircraft engine. To break in properly, the engine needs to be run at high RPM and get to low altitude as quickly as its propeller can carry it there. About the worst thing I could do to it would be to make three takeoffs and landings in the first half hour of its life.

So doing a trio of touch-and-goes to start the day isn’t an option.

I decided the best solution was to rent some other plane and do the stupid takeoffs and landings and get current again before Tess was ready for testing. Now, before Tess joined the family I was checked out in an airplane in Santa Fe. Had I bothered to keep up with it, I could have just rented it for a half an hour and taken care of this on my own, but I’m so comfortable in Tess that I haven’t bothered to fly anything else for years, so that was out. I’d have to fly with an instructor.

It would be a little more expensive, but I didn’t expect any problems. I fired off an email to the flight instructor I fly with every two years for my flight reviews, told him what was going on, and asked for a mid-November flight.

He refused.

His logic was that I didn’t need to be current to fly solo, and he didn’t feel I shouldn’t have a “passenger” along on a post-major maintenance flight.

Seriously?

Well, let’s talk about that. In many ways, this is a test flight, because you just never know what might happen after major maintenance. Like the instructor, many pilots argue that you shouldn’t have another person in the plane with you for such a flight. Others point to reduced accident statistics for two-pilot flight testing. The whole issue was discussed over several dinners in my household. Poor Rio was voted off the island by all the adults in the first round. No children—not even mature talented aviator children—on a “test flight.” But another adult?

That was a trickier question.

At first, I was against it because I knew there was at least a theoretical risk involved. But my long-time copilot Lisa saw it in a different way, and made a compelling argument for Crew Resource Management and the value of two sets of eyes, two sets of hands, and two minds. In her opinion I was safer with her onboard than I was by myself, and in the end she was proven correct. And that experience hasn’t changed her mind about coming along for round two.

Nor mine.

But what to do to get current so it will be legal? I don’t want to get current in Tess once her engine is on and working, as I feel there is a risk of damaging the new engine. My regular go-to guy refuses to help, not wanting to be party to something he personally disapproves of—which while annoying, I actually respect. I don’t have any local pilot friends I could hitch a ride with, as ours is the only plane housed at our home airport. And several other crazy ideas I had either didn’t pan out, or—like traveling to Arkansas to rent the last Coupe I flew—were too expensive.

So now what?

Frankly, I don’t know. But, sadly, it looks like I have plenty of time to figure out how to get current, because currently Tess is nowhere near being ready to fly.

 

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.

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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.

Will work for AvGas

I glared over the rim of my decaf, eyes not focused on the restaurant, but in my mind’s eye on the empty hangar we just left. “This,” I said definitively, “is why rich people have two airplanes.”

Mom and Lisa exchanged glances. They had been talking about the Silver Moon’s deep-fried cheesecake. It took their brains a second to shift gears back to aviation, which mine had never left. Lisa got there first. “So you have one to fly while the other one is in the shop?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I replied, setting the cup down with a bit more force than I’d intended to, slopping some of the dark liquid over the side. We’d come to SXU to pick up our airshow posters, a few of our trophies, and our rubber chickens. More on that in a minute. As the season is changing, with freezing nights ahead, we also drained the filter pods on the plane washing machine, unplugged and emptied out the hangar fridge, and—basically—winterized the place.

As there was just a splat of post-flight wine left in the fridge, we hung out when we were done and polished it off. Our hangar is really the ultimate pilot cave, walls covered with Ercoupe ads, articles, artifacts, and art. It has a relaxed come-and-hang-out vibe. Only one thing was missing.

An airplane.

Instead, right smack in the middle of the hangar was a huge chunk of nothing. When the plane dominates the space, there is a comfy margin around her for worktables and lounging chairs, but it’s cozy. With the plane absent, the space is awkward. Everything is crowded against the walls for no apparent reason. Out of years of habit, none of us even walked though the empty space that dominated the center of the hangar while we moved our cargo to Lisa’s 4Runner. Instead we walked around the void’s perimeter as if the center were sacred ground that could not be walked through on pain of death.

What’s up with the rubber chickens, you ask? Math. We’ve been asked to create a display at the fifth New Mexico Aviation Aerospace STEM Expo, the largest in the nation. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM programs help prepare young people for the tech jobs of tomorrow, and to introduce them to the fields these jobs will dominate.

Actually, the Expo people originally asked if Race 53 could be displayed, but she’s sitting engineless in Santa Fe with bags of Quickrete holding her tail off the ground.

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So with the first choice unavailable, I, as second runner up (why is it I’m always coming in second?) was asked if I’d be willing to talk to the three thousand plus middle and high school students who are expected to attend this year. I agreed and asked the director if he wanted me to talk about the World Record, Air Racing, or aviation writing.

He said, “yes.”

But then I realized that nothing I do has a thing to do with STEM. I reviewed the info on the event. The executive summary read: “Attendees will directly interact with hands-on displays…” Not having a plane to display, I knew we had to come up with some good hands-on alternatives. Of course we have some dead instruments, a model of the plane, some maps and tools of the trade, but it’s our rubber chicken adventure that deployed the greatest use of STEM in our household. I figured we could talk about how we used math and the scientific method to jettison rubber chicken in flight and accurately hit a ground-based target.

STEM in action.

Actually, the chickens, like our trophies and the rest of “stuff,” are just along to attract attention. Once the students are engaged, I plan to point out that while record setting and racing aren’t good career paths, there are many good careers available in aviation that, while not actually earning a living flying a plane, would give a young person a good enough income to own and fly a plane of his or her own just for the joy of it. Just for the joy of setting records, racing, or throwing out rubber chickens. And what kinds of jobs would those be? Mechanics, avionics people, air traffic controllers, engineers, and maybe even people who write about aviation for a living.

But what I won’t tell them is that they need a job good enough to support two airplanes.

That can wait until they’re a little older.

Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

Mechanic school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

An evil forecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Emergency Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Flight School

Tessie is flying perfectly. The controls light and harmonized. I adjust the new trim handle until I can’t feel any pressure coming through the yoke and then I let go. Tess flies straight and true. I bank into a turn to the left and she slides right into it. Silky. Compliant. Very airplane-like.

Aw, hell. Now I have to learn how to fly all over again.

Ever since we first got her, Tessie’s been a handful. A blue and white airplane with a red head’s temperament. She’s always been 100% hands-on, requiring full concentration. To be clear, this is not the way most airplanes are. Most airplanes are dynamically stable. If you let go of the controls, they fly on. If you hit a bump of air and do nothing, they settle down again.

Prior to the latest round of maintenance, if I let go of Tessie’s yoke—even for a few seconds to take off my jacket, she’d snap tail up, roll abruptly to the right, and dive like a Stuka, the World War II German dive bomber that was the terror of the invasion of Poland.

I always knew in my heart that Tess was an extreme member of her tribe, but being an older technology I never expected her to fly like, you know, an airplane. Still, not needing to dive bomb anybody, the Stuka-like behavior was getting old. I suspected that she was “out of rig” in some manner.

The word “rigging” comes to us from the sea, where it refers to all the various ropes, cables, and chains on a sailing ship that control the sails and yard arms. In airplanes, “rigging” is used to describe the harmonized balance of the primary control surfaces: Ailerons, elevator, and rudders and the adjustment of the cables and rods that control them. Quoting Jeff Simon’s Rig it Right: “If your plane is not properly rigged, the aircraft is fighting against itself in flight.”

Rigging is complex and time-consuming, with multiple variables that all interact with, and affect, each other. Most airplanes have rigging specs to guide airplane mechanics in assuring that the rigging is correct.

But as you know, Ercoupes aren’t most airplanes. Heck, they originally shipped from the Erco factory with no manual whatsoever.

Still, I’d been whining about our rigging for a few years, and I guess I finally got through to my mechanic. It might have been my threat to dive bomb his shop. But at any rate, my mechanic re-rigged Tess stem to stern and wing tip to wing tip. His assistant told me he spent days at it, working methodically through all the control surfaces.

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The results?

Now she flies perfectly. Light. Responsive. Eager to please. Not at all the delinquent I’ve come to know and love.

I don’t now how to fly this airplane anymore!

Now that the plane is re-rigged, I guess we’ll have to re-rig the pilot!

 

Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.

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It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…

 

Weight and balance for grown-ups

I think we’ve talked a time or two about the importance of weight and balance when flying general aviation aircraft. The simple fact is that virtually no light plane ever manufactured can lift a full load of people as well as a full load of fuel into the sky at the same time.

If you want to carry more people, you need to carry less fuel.

If you want to carry more fuel, you need to carry fewer people.

That’s the weight in weight and balance. The whole balance part of the weight and balance dance is about ensuring that the load is placed in the airplane correctly so that it’s neither too tail-heavy nor too nose-heavy to fly safely.

I’ve been doing weight and balance since I was seventeen years old.

The military does it too, at least for cargo planes. And I’ve watched flight attendants juggle passengers on small commuter planes, but never in a million years would it have occurred to me that it’s an issue for airliners had I not been on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Houston, Texas on Super Bowl Sunday.

What? Did I attend the Super Bowl? No. Not my cup of tea. Houston just happened to be where I changed planes heading farther east. But I did enjoy the good-natured ribbing between Falcons and Patriots fans flying into the city.

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The airplane was a Boeing 737, arguably the most successful airliner since the DC-3. Boeing has been making these short- to medium range twinjets since 1967. Over the intervening years there has been a blizzard of variations, including a military cargo version and a personal jet version, called the BBJ for Boeing Business Jet. Can you imagine owning a one hundred-foot long personal jet with a ramp weight of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds?

I wonder what the annual on that would cost? (The Plane Tales Plane is still in the shop for her annual, so thinking about such things actually cheers me up.)

Boeing has sold over ten thousand of these airliners to operators in 190 countries, according to Wikipedia. Stats there show 737s are operated by more than 500 airlines globally, and apparently, at any second on your wristwatch there are 1,250 of them in the air at the same time. All told, the 737 makes up a quarter of the global fleet of airliners.

And apparently it too is incapable of lifting both a full load of fuel and a full load of passengers into the air at once. I know this because after we’d sat—properly buckled in with our belts low across our laps as instructed—at the gate for the longest time, the Captain came on the intercom, and explained that we had, uh… a… you know… a problem.

Fuel is cheaper in Houston than it is in New Orleans or Orlando, the plane’s next two stops, he explained, so the airline topped up the tanks with cheap gas while on the ground in Texas. The problem was that the plane’s manifest showed a three-quarters full plane, but then the rest of the seats sold out at the last minute.

The plane was now too heavy.

Apparently, weight and balance matters to the big boys, too. Just like small planes, airliners aren’t always able to lift full seats and full tanks into the wild blue yonder.

The Captain told us that de-fueling takes forever so they decided the simplest solution was two fold. First, some people would need to de-plane. Then the rest of us would fly at lower than usual altitude to New Orleans, which is less fuel-efficient. He reported that by the time we got there this would get us within our max landing weight, which we’d exceed on takeoff.

I was surprised and delighted that he gave such a detailed explanation to his passengers.

First, the seven standby passengers were given the boot. But Southwest still needed five more passengers to take the next flight. After an offering of a $500 bounty, five hands shot up. Mine wasn’t one of them. I wanted to be on the barnstorming airliner. Typically, 737s fly at 35,000 feet. On this flight we’d be at 12-15,000 feet, according to the Captain. That I had to see.

But this really doesn’t sound like a good business practice, does it? To find out, I decided to run the math myself. A 737 can hold 7,837 gallons of Jet-A. I checked the price per gallon for Houston. Of course, my sources don’t show airline discounts, but I could fly in and buy a gallon for $5.50. At that price, if I flew in my personal BBJ—if I was rich enough to own one—and filled it up, I’d spend $43,103.50.

Holy cow.

Farther east in the Big Easy, sure enough the price jumps to seven bucks a gallon. Now my tank-up costs $54,859.00—nearly $12,000 more. I have such small gas tanks in the Plane Tales Plane that I don’t bother to divert for cheaper fuel, but when you have big tanks to fill, it can really make a difference!

As we taxied out to the runway I was still amazed how little difference there is between Ercoupe and Airliner.

 

For more about weight and balance, read my article The Weight and Balance Jungle in the June 2015 issue of Flight Training Magazine. Even non-pilots will enjoy it. It has elephants and monkeys. And whiskey.

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