Throttle Tale—Part 3

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.

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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.


Throttle Tale—Part 2

Low, un-forecasted, icky clouds have the north side of Dallas/Fort Worth socked in. I’m in Stark’s exceedingly stark little terminal building, which resembles an abandoned construction shack. Dirt and dead bugs form alternate layers on the floor at the base of the walls and on the windowsills. There are water stains on the ceiling tiles—at least the ones that haven’t fallen down—the windows are fifthly, bright orange rust mars the sinks, and let’s not even talk about the toilets.

But at least it’s shelter from the wind, and the air conditioning works. After wiping mystery crumbs and the dried carcasses of dead moths off the table with a scrap of yellowing newspaper, I sit in a faded plastic cafeteria chair and use the mobile hotspot on my cell phone to check the weather on my FlightPad while nibbling on a “meatasaurus” sandwich. When you travel slow, you can’t take the time to drive into town for lunch.

I have a choice: I can wait an hour or two at Stark for the ceilings to rise, or work my way around the south side of the city. It’s a longer ground track, and it’s into the wind. Still, I’d rather waste time in the air than on the ground.

At least on this ground.

I finish my sandwich, gather my things, and head back to Tessie. Up onto her left wing, toss the lunch bag in back, step over the fighter plane-style sidewall into the cozy cockpit, then slide down into the seat. I love the way my Coupe wraps her loving arms around me. I slide the doors up over my head and run through the engine start checklist. If I don’t use the checklist I tend to forget to open the master fuel cut off, and the engine stops about 30 seconds after starting, embarrassing when other pilots are watching. There’s not much risk of that on this blustery, hazy day in Onley, Texas; but still…

Engine up and running I test the throttle. It runs normally. Yeah. Must ‘a been some sort of weird fuel/air thing with the conditions. Clearly everything is fine.

I head out into the haze. Into the headwinds. Leveling off in cruise I’m just shy of the TACH redline for maximum speed. On the highway below me I see a U-Haul truck overtaking me. The driver looks up and me, shakes his head, and pulls away. Next, I’m over taken by a group of aging hippies in a battered VW microbus, two old ladies in a 1974 Yugo, and a kid on his bicycle who’s delivering newspapers.

This is going to be a long flight.

I have a track planned: A long, loping circle around the south side of Dallas. But I know that as the temperature rises, so too will the clouds, and I hope to take a short cut or two. I keep an eye on the ceilings being reported through my ADS-B, and I’m grateful for the advantage of near real-time weather reports from over the horizon that my pilot forefathers didn’t have.

Sure enough, as I fly south, ceilings to the east of me begin to improve, and I tighten my circle. Terrell lies on the east side of Dallas. If it weren’t for that nasty Class Bravo airspace around the huge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it would actually be a straight shot from my home base—but I must go around either north or south.

By the time Terrell finally comes into view, I’ve had enough flying and I’m looking forward to calling it a day. I make my radio call, come into the downwind, and remembering my throttle excitement on my last landing, leave the carb heat untouched. Down over the trees I swoop, base to final, and, darn… A little low again. I throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good.

I pull the carb heat on, pump the throttle and the engine roars back to life. This time, it is only a matter of seconds. Long seconds, but seconds nonetheless.

What the Sam Heck?

I touch down, shaken, not stirred. I taxi off the runway, using drunk driver corrections to the left, and counter-corrections to the right to get Tess to track straight ahead. I feel like a child playing with a toy car simulator.


Image: Amazon

Is this getting worse, or am I just tired?

The next morning Tess has a bunch of cables taped to her nose. And a strange little box, facing her prop. I’m getting the prop dynamically balanced. Not that I think there’s a problem, but at last year’s annual we had a brand-new RC Allen electric attitude indicator put in. It failed at once. We had to pull it out and sent it back. They replaced some bearing or bushing or something, and back in the plane it went. When we next flew, it failed again. This time, when we sent it back, they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Naturally, I had to pay for the installation, de-installation, re-installation, de-de-installation, re-re-installation—so I was getting a little hot under the collar about a two thousand-dollar instrument that had never worked, and was getting even more expensive in the effort to get it to work. All of this has taken nearly a year due to the long periods of down time with various other repairs that have been plaguing us.

Anyway, my lead mechanic talked to the folks at Kelly Manufacturing (who make the RC Allen products) and they decided perhaps it was a vibration issue, which is what led me to my adventure at Double Eagle II. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but after spending most of a morning there, the shop I’d gone to for the prop balancing couldn’t get their gear to work, so it was a wasted trip. One other shop in the state doesn’t do it anymore, and the third had their gear out for repair and didn’t know when it would be back. So I decided to have it done in Texas before the race.


Long story short: Tess’s prop wasn’t too badly out of balance. The Terrell mechanic and I would jump into the plane, throttle up to high RPM for ten seconds or so and take measurements on a hand-held computer. Then we’d shut down, and he’d review the readings and add some small weights to the back of the spinner. Then we’d fire back up and do it all over again.

One of the times, the engine hesitated for a moment, but quickly recovered.

In the end, he tweaked the prop balance to near perfection, but he said it was close enough in the first place that it was unlikely I’d notice any difference. So what’s up with the attitude indictor? I guess Tess just doesn’t want me to know her attitude.

I had hoped to run my handicap validation flight for the race after the prop was balanced, but the clouds are too low. It needs to be done at a density altitude of 6,000 feet. Back home, this time of year, that would be about a thousand feet underground. Here in central Texas, it’s about 4,000 feet up, but the clouds are heavy at 2K.

So instead, I ended up doing what aviation people do when they have a few minutes to spare. I hung around the hangar and shot the breeze with the mechanic. In talking about the trip over, the weird throttle thing came up, and the mechanic mentioned that he thought the engine’s hesitation during our testing was unusual, but as I didn’t react, he figured it was a normal thing for Tess. I conceded that I didn’t know what was normal in this plane anymore, but asked if he’d be willing to take a quick look at the throttle before they put Tess to bed for the night. I’d also been having some issues keeping her at a set idle speed since the throttle quad was removed to work on the trim during the last round of repairs, and I thought maybe it was slipping a little or something.

He promised he would.

A couple of hours later, as I was heading down the third-floor hallway of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites to go out to dinner, my phone rang. It was from some town in Texas I’d never heard of so, I assumed it was the latest gambit from those pesky folks at the Resort Rewards Center, or the pesky folks trying to sell me an extended warranty on a car I don’t own anymore, or the pesky folks that can help me with the student loan I don’t have. I almost didn’t answer it. But at the last minute I did. It was the lady who ran the shop.

“Hey, William,” she said casually, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?’

Next time on Plane Tales: For want of a nail…