Date Line: Terrell, Texas. A hot hallway on the third floor of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites
When I answered the phone, it was the woman who runs the shop that just balanced Tess’s prop, and was taking a quick peak under the panel to make sure that the throttle cable wasn’t loose.“Hey, William,” she said causally, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?”
This. Can’t. Be. Good.
I should have said something snarky, like, “Of course, it’s in the back with the spare cappuccino machine and the spare battery-powered back massager.” Instead, I could feel all the blood draining out of my head. The race was only two days away.
Apparently, my throttle cable had suffered a hernia. The cable is a thick wire that slides inside a flexible conduit. The conduit had ruptured where it passes through the firewall. Sometimes, when the throttle was pushed forward, it pushed the wire into the fractured down-stream section of the conduit. Other times, the wire took the path of least resistance and simply bent upward into the engine compartment, not moving the throttle arm on the carb at all.
But there was a problem. Well, a problem beyond the hernia. My heroes at Univair, who still hold the Ercoupe type certificate, and who have lots of parts and generally will make parts that they are out of, were both out of the cable my sub-species of Ercoupe—the CD model, of which only a few hundred were made—requires, and were being unclear about whether or not they would make any more. The cable might have to be rebuilt by a specialist company, and that would take time.
Augh. Not only was my head out of blood, now my stomach was churning.
The shop promised to see if they could come up with a field repair, and instead of going out for dinner, I went out for a stiff drink.
The next morning, I met with the mechanic at the hangar where Tess had been stowed for the night. He had created a patch for the throttle conduit with safety wire, some sort of shrinking aluminum tape, and God knows what else. He figured it was good for six months. I promised to get the cable either replaced or rebuilt during the impending annual. He also warned me that he had to “change the architecture” of the cable. The first half inch went from zero to full throttle. On the bright side, apparently, he felt I had lost two inches of throttle movement, so I should have more power.
I mounted up, fired her up, inched the throttle forward and pretty much redlined the engine. Tess bucked and pulled against her brakes. I inched the throttle back. No, that’s a lie. I millimetered the throttle back. I was itching to get into the air and she what she could do. But first I had to taxi over to the shop where my gear was.
Now, do you remember the opening credits of the 1960’s TV show Gilligan’s Island? Where Gilligan and the Skipper are fighting the wheel of the Minnow during the storm that maroons the passengers of the three-hour tour? Yeah. That was me trying to keep Tess on the taxiway. Huge control inputs to the left and then to the right, a discordant symphony of continuous motion.
Now I was getting spooked.
Back at the shop, I reported what I was experiencing to the mechanic, and he conceded that he found it a wild ride when he taxied her to the storage hangar the night before. And so began the trouble-shooting. I’ll spare you the details, but I have to say I was impressed with their knowledge of my strange little bird’s type and by their sensible approach. The culprit? A nearly impossible-to-reach $65 bearing at the top of the control mast. Mine had failed so completely that the mast had dropped down enough that it was no longer properly mating to the steering system. Now, when I say top of the control mast, you should picture the corner stone of a skyscraper. Basically, the damn airplane is built around this bearing.
To reach it, some mechanics strip everything out of the cockpit, including the header tank. It left me wishing my mechanics had thought to replace this cheap (for an airplane) part when they put in a new header tank last year. But this shop’s approach was different; instead of removing everything above the bearing, they essentially cut a hole in the floor of the plane and drop the mast down, then rebuild the bottom. Of course, they didn’t have the bearing it stock.
We had a pow-wow to discuss what to do next. The first thought was that no harm could really come of it. There was nothing that could fail catastrophically. The worst that could happen would be a return of the shimmy. But when I added the fact that it was getting progressively worse, we all began to worry about a loss of control on takeoff or landing. Remember, the flight controls are connected to the ground controls.
I grounded the airplane.
I’d already decided I wanted these folks to take over the annuals, but I had hoped to race this weekend, and at the Galveston Race in two weeks’ time. Terrell wouldn’t really even be that far out of my way coming home from the gulf, and in future years, as I’d be coming out to the race anyway, it would be two birds with one stone. Well, one bird with two stones. But now that wasn’t going to happen, at least not the first race. I asked if they could have her ready before Galveston, but the time was really too short, the shop schedule too full (there were Ercoupes from as far away as Florida being worked on there), and I know better than to race an airplane fresh out of annual.
I stared wishfully at the sky in silence for a moment, then told them to work her in when they could. For a second year in a row, the race season was over for me before it started.
And I’m back in airplane maintenance hell.