Flight instructors: The good, the bad, the ugly, and me?

I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.

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Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.

For one day.

Here’s the tale…

 

Date Line: September 17, 1984

KGXY, Greeley, Colorado

 

I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.

A lot more flight time.

Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.

But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.

The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.

It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.

I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.

Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.

I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.

As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”

It went downhill from there.

That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.

And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?

I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.

In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.

But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.

 

Back to school?

Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.

I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).

In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.

I just don’t remember how I learned to land.

So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”

About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.

She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.

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OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.

But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.

In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.

She was devastated.

In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”

Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.

I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?

 

A bitch of a pitch

It was the best Ercoupe takeoff since the JATO tests of 1941. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences strapped rocket pods under the wings of an Ercoupe and lit the fuses in a series of successful tests that led to the military use of rockets to help heavy planes get off of short runways—and to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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But there were no rocket pods on Tessie’s sturdy metal wings, and we were rising off the ground at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Granted, in other airplanes that’s nothing to write home about. But in my beloved, but heavy and underpowered ‘Coupe, the only time I’d seen a number like that was when a thunderstorm tried to suck me up into its jaws when I foolishly tried to slip under it.

So I was ecstatic about the climb rate. The new stroker engine was really showing its stuff, lifting Tess off the runway like never before.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem was my propeller. Oh gosh, where to start… Where to start? OK, the angle at which a propeller cuts the air is called its “pitch.” A flatter pitch bites the air in a way that creates better climb, but at the cost of speed. A steeper pitch gives more speed, but less lifting ability. Pitch also has a complicated ménage à trois relationship with torque and rpm that I don’t even pretend to understand, but the upshot of all of this was that while we had JATO-like takeoffs, we were hitting our engine’s redline at about half power. My mechanic advised me that I needed to re-pitch the prop.

What’s involved in that?

Well, fancy airplanes have variable pitch props that let the pilot change the pitch of the propellers in flight using a lever in the cockpit so that they can have both strong climb on takeoff and fast cruise in flight. Less fancy modern planes have what are called ground-adjustable propellers. The pitch can be easily and quickly changed on the ground to best fit the mission at hand.

But I have neither.

I have a metal prop whose pitch can only be changed by having an expert literally bend the metal blades to change the angle, thus “re-pitching” it. Luckily for me there’s just such an expert an hour and a half’s flight away and there’s no limit on how many times my particular model of prop can be re-pitched, other than the limits imposed by my bank account balance. Unluckily for me, this is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. Adding to the complexity of the situation, propeller performance is affected by weight, temperature, altitude, the whims of the Gods of Aviation, and who knows what else.

Of course, in my innocence at the beginning of this particular Plane Tale, I knew none of this. I trustingly flew to the prop shop and talked to the Master Metal Bender, giving him what data we had. Tessie’s prop was measured. She was wearing a 46-pitch prop. Yeah, the numbers meant nothing to me either, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that would be considered an “extreme” climb prop for an Ercoupe, which is what she needed at our altitude with a largely worn out engine. Given our data, the prop was re-pitched to 51, which is completely at the other end of the spectrum for ‘Coupes. I now had a fast cruise prop.

And boy, was Tess ever fast. Wearing her new pitch, she cut through the air a full 10 miles per hour faster than ever! It was amazing. Race trophies danced in my eyes.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem this time was the runway. Tessie didn’t want to leave it. We used up thousands of feet of concrete, and then she could barely lift into the air. I had cartoon visions of Tessie furiously flapping her metal wings to get airborne.

This just wouldn’t do.

So back to the prop shop I went. The Master Metal Bender took Tess’s propeller off again and re-re-pitched. Logically, it seemed we needed to be halfway between where we’d been and where we went (although these things aren’t necessarily linear). As half way would be 48.5, and things don’t work that way, I had to choose between 48 and 49. I went with 49, on the fast side of middle of the road. OK, forget what I said a few minutes ago. We really do have to all talk more about these pitch numbers to drive the story forward. Here’s your background…

Historically the Ercoupe wisdom was that:

48 was a climb prop.

50 was a normal prop, and…

52 was a cruise prop.

But ‘Coupes have gotten fat. New electronics and gadgets have made them heaver over the decades, and that affects prop performance. While there’s no official data, for modern weights, many Coupe folks now consider that:

46 is a climb prop.

48 is a normal, prop, and…

50 is a cruise prop.

Adding to the confusion is that no one seems to know what prop best suits the stroker in an Ercoupe. Given the fact that this whole prop thing is more of an art than a science in the first place, I’m sure you can see where this is going.

So how’d the re-re-pitch go? Rio said it best when he told his grandmother that it was, “Less miserable.”

The new pitch, as expected, reduced the speed and increased the climb. But it was a marginal change at best. So we have to re-re-re-pitch. What a bitch.

So picture me standing in the Aviation Maintenance Casino. I’m standing at the propeller roulette wheel, and there are only two numbers left to bet on: 47 and 48. I know 46 is too flat. I know that 49 and 51 are too steep, and that even though we skipped 50, the change between 49 and 51 wasn’t much. This suggests that going from 49 to 48 wouldn’t net much of a change either. Of course, by the same logic, a 47 shouldn’t be much different from a 46, which was where all of our troubles started in the first place.

The Croupier calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…”

 

The Eternal Airplane

I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.

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Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.

Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.

Or maybe not.

But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.

Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.

Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.

I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.

Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.

In federal prison.

Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.

Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.

Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.

But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?

 

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

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I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

You are now free to move about the country

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

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

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Naturally, that’s where it happened…

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

A strong smell of engine exhaust fills the cockpit.

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

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

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

It’s the closest airport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It falls out.

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

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

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

 

First fire

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

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

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

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

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

Five seconds.

Ten.

Fifteen.

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

Twenty-five.

Thirty.

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

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

No oil.

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

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

I don’t buy it.

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

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

But it doesn’t feel that way.

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

As a test pilot.

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

“What do you mean?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?

For want of a spare

The nose wheel tire is flat as a pancake. Again. I sigh. Then curse. This is my third time at this particular rodeo.

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The first time, my mechanic gave me instructions over the phone on how to remove the nose wheel to bring it to him so he could replace the inner tube. Unlike cars, it’s illegal to patch the inner tube of an airplane tire. Come to think of it, unlike cars, airplane tires still have inner tubes! (Aviation technology historically lags the rest of the world, due to long certification processes and libraries full of rules and regs that never evolve.)

Now, for background, there are actually a handful of maintenance items that pilots are allowed to do, and don’t require a licensed airplane mechanic. For instance, a pilot can change a light blub in an airplane. And a pilot can replace a defective cotter pin. A pilot can also add hydraulic fluid to the reservoir. A pilot can change the battery. And that’s about it.

Oh. Wait. A pilot can also change the tires, or more correctly, “remove, install, and repair landing gear tires.”

Of course to do so, it helps to know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. But with my mechanic’s advice, some creativity, the deployment of a lot of Anglo Saxon English, and with much struggle and lots more grease, Rio—whom I took out of school for the day to help me—and I got the job done, and we drove the removed wheel to Santa Fe for a new tube.

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While I had faith I that could successfully remove the wheel, and get it back on again, I had no particular faith that I could remove the bad tire and tube and put a new one on the wheel. I’ve watched through the windows at the tire shop when I’ve bought new tires for my car. These types of operations require the right equipment and the right know-how. I have neither.

My confidence in my potential for doing that part of the job was not increased by watching my mechanic put the new tube in later that day. Besides, I thought, how often could something like this possibly happen?

The second time we had a flat nose wheel, we were on our way to the AirVenture Cup and we were severely pressed for time. My mechanic offered to make a house call. He and his dog flew over from his airport to our airport and he got us fixed up right away in our own hangar.

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And now, not even a year later, I’m squatting on the ground next to yet another crumpled pile of rubber.

I attach my compressor to the stem of the flat tire and flip on the switch. In no time, I’m at 18 pounds psi on the little tire. I get out the bottle of soapy water and spray the stem. No dice. No simple fix of a loose stem valve. We’ve got a real leak in the inner tube and I’ve got three choices: Remove the nose wheel and take it in for repair—a four hour round trip drive; request a house call; or air up the tire to the max and fly the plane to my mechanic, betting that the tire won’t go completely flat during the one-hour flight.

I immediately reject option three as unnecessarily risky.

Oh. Right. I have a fourth (theoretical) choice: I could put a new tire on the wheel myself, if I had one. Naturally, I decide to take the wheel to Santa Fe.

I lay a soft towel over the horizontal stabilizer of Tessie’s tail and heft three heavy bags of landscaping rock up on top of it. This shifts the center of gravity backwards, offsetting the weight of the engine, and like a child’s teeter-totter, Tess rocks smoothly back and forth on her main gear with the touch of a finger.

This is how airplanes are jacked up to change their nose wheels, although I’m told that the pros use cases of oil instead of landscaping rock.

I settle myself onto the oil-stained concrete floor of the hangar and struggle with the screws that hold the nose pant in place, then start loosening the bolts that hold the axle. My hands become coated with a slick layer of black grease as I remove the various parts. It’s taking longer than I remembered, and I’m not looking forward to the long drive over to Santa Fe and back to the hangar, where I’ll have to reverse the whole process.

That’s when it occurs to me: If this were a car, I’d be putting on the spare right now. Actually if it were a car I’d be calling AAA rather than getting my hands dirty. After all, that’s what I pay them for. But you get my drift.

I decide right then and there that I’m going to buy a spare nose wheel and have it mounted with a new tire and tube. For future flats, I’ll just do a quick change and be on my way. Of course, having a spare wheel will change the course of the universe entirely, because being fully prepared for a quick change, I’ll never have a flat nose gear tire again in my life.

At least, that was what I decided until I saw the price of a new nose wheel. For most planes, a nose wheel runs a few hundred bucks. For whatever reason, for mine, it’s fully two thousand dollars.

If an ounce of prevention buys a pound of cure, how much cure do I get for 2K?

I look into my empty wallet and change my mind.

I think I can learn to put a stupid tire on the damn wheel.

 

Hot Property

For Sale: Five year old Air Race. Nice time of year. Mild climate. Good location at large airport. Held during major air event. Viewed by over 200,000 attendees. For more information, call Craig Payne at Sun ‘n Fun.

OK. So I totally made up that classified ad. But what it’s selling is totally real, and you can buy it tomorrow, if you want. The Sun 40 Sprint—an aircraft speed trial that actually launches out of, and finishes at, Sun ‘n Fun’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the expo’s daily showcase—has been re-classified by the expo’s brass as a “sponsorable” event.

That means you can buy your very own air race. Which is not as crazy as it sounds.

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Let’s suppose you own a small company that has a great aviation product that you want to sell to pilots. You’ve got your website ready to go and your inventory is just begging to be shipped. Now all you have to do is get the word out. Sure, you have a Facebook page, but like us here at Plane Tales, you only have 32 “likes.” (And we love every one of you.) So you need to advertise.

The traditional approach would be to buy an ad in one of the aviation magazines, but this is not for the faint of pocketbook, and certainly not for the bootstrapper. For instance, a 1/6 page black and white ad in AOPA’s Pilot magazine costs $3,080—and everyone who knows anything about magazine advertising knows you need to be seen again, again, and again. For a two-color ad the rate jumps to nearly four thousand bucks. Want a color photo in your ad?

Cha-Ching. $4,840 at the cash register, please.

For one ad.

So what about a booth at one of the aviation expos instead?

Sun ‘n Fun would actually be a good place to start. It’s neither as expensive nor as overwhelming as AirVenture, but it’s a huge leg up over a local airshow or fly-in. The annual Florida event draws nearly a quarter million aviation enthusiasts from all over the country who are in a nice warm location following a cold winter back home, and they are ready to take to the skies again with their hearts and wallets.

How much would a booth at Sun ‘n Fun set you back? Looking at this year’s rates, the cheapest outdoor booths are $1,390. That price includes six exhibitor badges and one parking space. If you want to be indoors, the rate is $2,350. If you need internet, it will be more. Of course, larger booths and premium locations command yet higher rates.

Still, it sounds like a deal and a half, huh? Hell, it’s cheaper than the stupid magazine ad.

Or is it? Because that’s just the cost of the empty booth. You’ll still need signs, display materials, and tradeshow giveaways. And that’s just the beginning. The show runs the better part of a week. You’ll need to pay for hotel, rental car, and food. And unless you have amazing stamina, you’ll need help.

And you have to get there, too.

This is why some companies choose to have a remote presence instead. Ben Sclair, publisher of Sun ‘n Fun Today (the show’s daily newspaper) told me that some companies find it cheaper and just as effective to advertise in his paper to reach the attendees, rather than to take on all the costs of coming in person.

Or you could buy the air show. Even I gotta admit that the Plane Tales Sprint has a nice ring to it.

I’m sure the details are negotiable, but Payne tells me he’s looking to find someone to sponsor next year’s show for around three thousand dollars. Where would your money go? To trophies and food for the racers, and to help support the event and Sun ‘n Fun’s educational mission. What would you get for your money? Well, you’d get your name out in a big way. It would be in all the adverting, all the media coverage, and if you went to Sun ‘n Fun yourself, you’d hear your company’s name again and again during the hour-long event, which is covered live by an announcer just like a baseball game.

If I had something to sell other than words, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. I think magazine ads are great. A booth at a trade show lets you interact one-on-one with potential customers. But both are expensive. Also, there’s virtually no limit to the number of magazine ads out there, and Sun ‘n Fun has hundreds of booths. In other words, you’re part of a crowd. It’s hard to stand out.

But there’s only one Sun 40 Sprint. It’s never been for sale before, and it could be all yours—all yours. That’s what I call a hot property.

 

Here’s Craig’s email: yakman285@gmail.co

 

Test Pilot

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

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

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

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

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I imagine it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.