Sunday, February 12, 2006

Knocking Around

Since we had lost out on the fly-in I had arranged the week before, I wanted to fly the Cheetah somewhere for lunch. This was two Saturday’s ago. I wanted to go somewhere new. One of my co-workers, Dave, who also owns a Pitts Special and flies for Continental Express, had told me that a new grill had opened up at the La Porte, Texas airport. After thinking about it all week and talking with Connie, I decided to make the new grill our target even though the airport was familiar to us and just on the other side of town. Dave wanted me to give him a call when we came over; he would have his plane out and might even come “escort” us to the airfield.

Connie and I showed up at the airport at 11:30 a.m. or so. It was a bright sunny day and only a bit cool, maybe sixty degrees; for the most part, Winter had passed over the Houston area so far this year. We pulled the cover off the airplane, I gathered up the fuel stick and fuel tester jar I used to gauge and test the airplane’s gas, and I started my preflight. The fuel stick said we had about 12 gallons in one tank and I could see gas sloshing over the metal tabs in the other (telling me I had 19 or so there). We chatted about what the fuel stick was telling us; we were getting confused about what the conversion factor was, so I mumbled something about needing to consult the original calibration card and moved on. Popping open the hood on the left, I looked over the mags and their wiring, the defroster and heater hoses (replaced not long ago during the pre-sale inspection), checked the oil cooler for cracks, and the engine and spark plugs for general condition. I pointed out the electric fuel pump to Connie and then shut the cowl, pushing on it to make sure it was closed. I continued around the cowl checking the general condition, finding one more little mark on what used to be my perfectly black and painted propeller, and then popping the hood on the passenger side to check the oil and all that engine stuff over there. Checked the gas (already told you that), the wing, untied everything, looked at the fuselage and inspected the ailerons and elevators and then pulled out my cell phone and called my buddy Dave whom we were supposed to meet. Getting only his voicemail, I left a message saying we were on our way and hopped in my airplane. Plugged in my headset and my “push-to-talk”, put my checklist and my charts up on the windscreen, and strapped in, telling Connie to come on up. Getting into a Cheetah is like getting on a see-saw; one of you needs to be in the front of the airplane before anyone steps up on the back or there is REAL trouble!

Connie got in and I helped her get arranged. Once she was strapped in and her headset was plugged in and hanging around her neck, I grabbed my checklist and started going through it. The engine roared to life easily; and after I was satisfied all was well, I turned on all our radios and taxied the airplane forward.

A few moments later, we were roaring down our little taxi-runway and lifting into the air. No one was in the air but us, so I cut to the southeast, heading us toward the bay. The homes and streets of Friendswood slid by below and on our left as I juggled our course to make sure we stayed just south of NASA Road One. To venture north would put us into Ellington Field’s airspace, and I had no intention of engaging in a run-in with the Feds.

About ten knots of wind on the ground equated to a bit more at fourteen hundred feet, as high as I felt I needed to go to make this short trip. We could see the wide expanse of Ellington p to our north, followed by the closer and smaller confines of Johnson Space Center and the ragged, blue oval of Clear Lake. Flying over the top of League City, I looked down at the new housing development that now occupied the spot of what once had been my aerial home, i.e., Houston Gulf Airport but named Spaceland the first time I saw it. The old airport had hung in until after 9/11 when the price became right to sell it, a wise choice made by owners are named Bin Laden. (If you’re thinking this is coincidence, you’re wrong. This WAS the infamous Bin Laden family. The airport had been bought years ago by Osama’s brother who was a pilot and was, ironically, killed in an ultra-light airplane crash.) Now, there was nothing to show for it but a cluster of homes.

As we approached the shoreline of west Galveston Bay, I turned us north, tracking just east of Highway 146 and past oil tanks and refineries. Ahead of us, the quad spires of the Fred Hartman bridge challenged us; but I saw the black asphalt strip of La Porte airport’s Runway 30 and turned toward it. There was no one in the pattern but us, and I thought about flying a “break” to downwind; but the Cheetah doesn’t really go fast enough to make a break look great, so after calling “upwind”, I did a leisurely turn across the end of the airport to downwind. As we passed over the three rows of hangars on the airport’s west side, I looked down and spotted Dave’s white and red-striped Pitts Special sitting on the tarmac in front of one of them. That meant he was probably around somewhere.

Rolling out on downwind, I completed the landing checklist and pulled my power back abeam my landing point. Descending, I turned onto base leg and into my crosswind, still feeling a bit high and still up around 80, close to my best glide airspeed. Urging the yoke back and nose up gently, I slowed us to 75 and felt the Cheetah begin to decelerate and sink faster. The numbers on the runway were sitting in the same spot on my windshied, so I left the flaps up and just continued to hold my speed. We touched down on the numbers and really slow. I was able to easily stop and turn off onto Taxiway A (Alpha) only a couple of hundred feet (if that) down from the runway’s threshold.

Right turn and we taxied onto the long taxiway parallel to the runway. We taxied down maybe a quarter mile to the taxiway parallel to intersecting runway 5/23 and paused as we scoped out the red hangars to our right. I recognized an aviation gas fuel sign but didn’t see any hide nor hair of a restaurant, yet it just seemed to me that it had to be down there if it was anywhere. The only thing behind us was the sole hangar of Debbie Rihn’s flight school, and in front of us the hangars looked like, well, hangars. So, I turned the airplane left onto the southeast taxiway.

As we approached the red hangars, the first thing I noticed was a little yellow helicopter sitting square in front of us. As we taxied up to the hangars, we passed a Cherokee tied down outside the first red hangar and then saw a small shack in front of it with a sign that said “Triangle Aviation”. A Cessna 150 sat on some grass just down from it; we pulled up alongside the Cessna and stopped, scoping the situation out. I spotted the restaurant over to our right and alongside a small dirt road that curved along the fence to the red hangars. But I was perplexed about where to park the airplane. My first instinct was to taxi down the dirt road and put it on the grass next to the restaurant or on the cement patio behind the restaurant. But I tied myself too much to convention and kept looking for a more “normal” tiedown spot. A small cement “T” jutted out into the grass on my right, and a pair of green wooden chocks sat in its right and foremost corner. I decided to park the airplane over there.

I taxied her in and shut her down. As Connie and I were getting out, I noticed a pilot in a brown flight suit with a yellow stripe walking around the helicopter. Was he doing a preflight? I wasn’t sure. Stepping off the airplane, we walked toward the old dilapidated ex-hangar that was now the Runway Grill.

Immediately in front of us was a patio surrounded by a little red, wooden fence. A little dark-haired boy about ten or eleven years old leaned against it and looking our way. I couldn’t tell if he was interested in us or something beyond. I saw a wooden screen door at the building’s left corner but it looked like it led into the grill’s kitchen, so I didn’t bother with it. Instead, I stepped over a garden hose and black mud through a small gate into the cement patio’s fence. Behind me, I heard Connie get told she wasn’t at the right door. She had apparently tried to enter the door behind me. So much for having a PhD.

The back door into the place opened into a warehouse of a room littered with brown wooden tables. To our left was a buffet style counter, behind it a wall covered with automobile license plates and a whiteboard touting the day’s specials. We glanced at the steaming food behind the serving counter’s slanted glass window but wondered if that was all they had since we hadn’t seen a menu. Sitting down at a table in front of the counter, we waited to be served but none of the waitresses in the room seemed interested in us. An attractive young blonde opened the back door, saying, “Tommy, come on back in.”

“But, mom, I want to watch the helicopter take off!” he replied.

She stepped back inside as I told Connie I wanted to watch the helicopter take off, too. I was concerned about how close the Cheetah was to it. If he lifted off and climbed up vertically before going forward, then I wasn’t concerned. If not….

I stepped outside just in time to see him left up about six feet off the ground and then drive forward at angle that put him just behind my airplane. He went by it no higher than the top of its tail, and his inconsiderate if not downright hostile windblast threw the Cheetah’s control surfaces in all directions. Then, once he had given it a good blast, he drove forward toward the northwest in a shallow climb.

“He didn’t have to do that!” I exclaimed. “I want to go out and check on the airplane.”

We walked out the back gate and cut across the grass to the airplane. I unlocked the canopy, pulled the control lock out of the pilot’s yoke, and flexed the surfaces. Everything felt okay. I put the control lock back in and took a quick look at the surfaces to see if I could see anything abnormal. It all looked okay, though I wasn’t sure we’d really know the true story until the airplane’s annual inspection.

I was not in a good mood. Cursing the luck, I walked back to the grill with Connie, though she insisted we take the front door back in. So, we did; and this time we were met by a young, happy, black haired high-school waitress as soon as we walked in. I felt like we had crossed into another dimension. Or come back from the dead.

The waitress was a charming young woman who happily took our orders of two fish sandwiches but forgot to tell me--when she said I could get onion rings instead of french fries with my order--that they cost extra. Silverware included a knife and a fork. No spoons made it tough to stir the tea unless you have straws, which we requested. The fish was almost too hot to eat but good, lightly battered. The sandwiches were just under six bucks each, not a bad price because the helping size was pretty nice.

We paid at the counter and walked back to the airplane, thankfully getting there before our little helicopter got back. I did a quick inspection and we hopped in, starting the airplane up and taxiing back to 12/30. But when we hit its parallel taxiway I turned left to taxi toward the three hangars at the west end of the field. I had seen Dave’s Pitts sitting out beside one of them when we landed, so I was hoping he might be somewhere about.

We turned into the hangars at the westernmost taxiway and had to stop next to a pile of rocks sitting near the taxiway to wait for a Cessna 172 that was also turning in but had more smartly taken the easternmost route. We followed them into a space between the two western hangars; and as we did, I saw Dave down near the other end polishing a motorcycle. He had told me a day or two before he had been looking at one. I spun the Cheetah around on in front of a hangar door just north of his and shut its engine down.

Dave was happy to see us. He had bought the motorcyle for four thousand dollars and was very happy about the deal. He walked up to look at the Cheetah. Though we had been talking about the airplane for months, this was the first time he had seen it.

“Sweet!” he exclaimed. “This is really nice. Looks great on the inside, too.”

I appreciated the compliments. But beauty really is in the eye on the beholder. I thought the airplane looked fairly good but sorely needed a new paint job, something Connie and I simply could not afford to do. But it was nice Dave thought so much of the airplane.

We chatted for a few moments more, including the subject of a little yellow helicopter that had rudely flailed the control surfaces on my airplane. Dave acknowledged that he had noticed the helicopter’s departure and said it was much lower than usual. He encouraged me to go over to the helicopter operation to complain. Frankly, I didn’t see much use of doing that. While I couldn’t know for sure, I believed that the control lock had prevented the surfaces from being damaged. And I wanted to go fly some more.

Connie and I manned the Cheetah up, strapped in, and waved goodbye as we started her engine. I taxied east to the approach end of runway 30 and pulled off into an empty concrete pad that was the remnants of Cliff Hyde Aviation, a flight school that had moved to Ellington Field. I did performed the Takeoff Checklist, running the engine up, checking control surfaces and trim, setting the radios and flight instruments, and then turning on my transponder and ensuring the canopy was latched closed. Saying my intentions over the radio, I taxied out onto the runway and pushed the throttle to full. We took off and I waggled the wings at Dave who waved at us from the seat of his motorcyle sitting on the taxiway. I turned us back to the east, and we headed out across the bay.

In front us, green flatlands jutted out into the bay. As we crossed the small expanse of open water, I checked our course against the curling road I could see in front of us. We were heading almost straight for a small airport named “RWJ”, and I dialed the radio over to its communication frequency to listen for any traffic that might be arriving. Our destination was Chambers County Airport also known as Anahuac, the “Alligator Capital of Texas”, a name that probably would have panicked my wife and caused her to forbid us to land there to get gas. It would turn out to be a good thing that there weren’t any alligators to be seen, other than the gator gremlins that would bite us at the gas pump.

We did hear an airplane calling in from the north as RWJ’s single paved runway slid beneath us. I called our position as “over the airport heading eastbound at fourteen hundred”. The other aircraft acknowledged the call even though we both knew we would be no threat to each other. I looked at the chart again and Chambers County should be just to the right of our nose. It was just south of the town of Anahuac itself. Spotting the town, I banked us ever so slightly to the right to take us a little more south and then caught sight of the airport. The runway was making about a seventy-degree angle to us, and there was right traffic to runway 35, so I flew over the north end of the runway and banked right to line us up. From our thousand foot perch, the runway asphalt looked in fairly good shape, but the runway numbers were all but faded and gone.

We rolled onto base and then onto final. The first turnoff was about halfway up the runway. Because of that, I chose not to use any flaps and landed a little bit long. Even so, I didn’t have to touch the brakes much to make the turn off. As I did, I found the airport’s self-serve gas pump straight in front of us. I taxied up to the pump and shut the engine down at what I considered to be a close but safe distance away.

Connie and I climbed out. The airport office was to our right at the closest end of a rusty-looking metal hangar, and a reddish Ford Bronco sat outside it, though we saw no other sign of life. The airport gave the appearance of being fairly run down. We walked up to the gas pump and I grabbed the metal grounding strap to pull it out, but it wouldn’t budge. I checked everything I could, tugged on the damn thing a couple of times, but still couldn’t get it to move. To work around the problem, I grabbed the Cheetah’s prop at the root on both sides and pulled the airplane gently forward until I could get the strap to reach. After clipping it on, I turned my attention to the gas pump. It was the standard type seen at many airports, and it used touchpad keys to accept inputs. The problem was that the “Enter” key would not work! I tried several times to program in the amount of gas I needed to get, but I could never get the damn thing to accept the numbers. Cursing, I turned and visually checked the gas in the wings. I thought we had enough for about an hour and a half worth of flight time with no reserve but it would only take us about thirty minutes to get back to Pearland. We had come here because another Cheetah owner had told us gas was cheap here and it was, but I seemed to be proving out the axiom that “you get what you pay for”.

“Good thing we didn’t land here without enough gas to get somewhere else,” I muttered. “Or we would be stuck.” And even though I had seen a Cessna 150 taxi past and disappear into a hangar, not one person had ventured out to see how we were doing. It felt disserted, abandoned here. Guess the gators had gotten everybody.

I disconnected the ground strap and pushed the airplane far enough back so I could easily turn without risking my wingtips. We hopped in and started the Cheetah back up, and I ran through an abbreviated takeoff checklist, skipping the run-up since we had only been shut down for a few minutes and I wanted to use no more gas than necessary to get airborne. We back-taxied down the runway, spun around, and took off just as I saw one person out in the lot between the airport office and the gas pumps. He watched us turn back to the west.

Connie hates flying across open water, but I angled our flight path toward the south to cut the distance but a little north of what I could have done to get back over land in a reasonable amount of time. The bay waters were blue and looked shallow, and we watched a few large ships from the Port of Houston as they steamed south out Galveston Bay toward the Gulf of Mexico. The air bumped is now and then, but the day was bright and clear.

We flew past the Kemah Bridge, turning eastbound to split the waters of Clear Lake. I angled us back over its southern shore, as we crossed over the eastern subdivisions of League City, the city itself, and then crossed the north-south grey ribbon of Interstate 45. I listened to Houston Approach on the radios, but none of the traffic he was talking to seemed to be in our area. I spotted a Beech Baron crossing from our right to left and in front of us maybe a half mile away and pushed the nose down and right to put more separation between us. He droned on, as I spotted Pearland, our destination, and switched the radios over to its frequency. I heard no other traffic but called out position anyway as I maneuvered us south of the airport. Turning us back around, I hit the field in the middle and quickly turned to put the runway on our left, completing the landing checklist and pulling the power back a little to being our descent. But with a pattern altitude of only 800 feet, you don’t have to pull the power back too far to get down, especially in my airplane. I had hoped to land with full flaps, but as I turned final and we hit headwinds blowing down the runway, I knew I wouldn’t have to touch them or would have to add power if I did.

Right before touchdown, the airplane danced from some turbulence and she felt kind of squirrely for a second, but I managed to make a nice touchdown. We turned off at the middle taxiway and taxied up to Pearland's gas pumps. Gas was something like $3.25 a gallon over here vice Chamber County’s $2.90 per gallon rate, but gas you can get at $3.25 a gallon you can reach always beats gas at $2.90 per gallon you can’t.

It just goes to prove that runway and gas behind you on the ground really is useless.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Almost Snakebit

(One of the problems with posting blogs online is that the latest one shows up at the top of the page. That’s great from a chronological standpoint but not from a storytelling standpoint, so see my earlier post below for part 1 of this story.)

On Sunday, Connie and I drove down to see if we could pick up our airplane. Bill had called and said it was ready and to come down and go fly it. I had every intention of doing just that; yet, I traveled down there with a package of seat belts under my arm. The front seat belt buckles had cracked plastic tops and the belt webbing was aging under the influence of the sun, so I had bought some new seat belts from Schroth, a company in Germany that had satisfied the FAA’s TSO (Technical Standard Order) C114 and certified their seat belts for Grumman AA-1 and AA-5 aircraft. I wanted to install them while the airplane was at Bill’s in case I had a problem putting them in. You can understand why I might be suspicious that might happen.

The airplane was tied down behind Bill’s hangar, one of many at the north end of the airfield. It was a bright sunny day, a bit cool, with winds blowing down from the north at about twenty knots. I picked up my airplane’s keys from Bill again and Connie and I drove our white Montero Sport around to the airplane. Breaking out my small toolbox, I hauled it and the new belts over to the Cheetah, unlocked its fighter-type canopy, slid it back, and stepped into the backseat. The seatbelts were attached by large, metal screws, one behind each seat and one at its side, and the shoulder harnesses by bolts at about eye level and behind each seat.

Connie opened the package belonging to the pilot’s belts while I began removing the screws that held the old belts in. I could reach the screw holding in the the seat belt fairly easily if I had Connie rotate the seat forward, which she did without complaint. The part numbers were telling us which buckle went in on the pilot’s side, so I lined the “right” one up with its attach bracket, making sure its bushing was in place, and slid the screw into it while matching it all up with a stand-off the screw slid through. It took slender fingers to do all that, and I was glad I have them.

I got the buckle in fairly quickly. But as I held up the seat-belt/shoulder harness assembly, it didn’t look right. Connie had been protesting that something was wrong as she watched me, which pissed me off, so I turned the seat belt configuring over to her while I went after the other attach bolts and screws.

“This is the wrong belt,” she said, something that got me cursing right away. Godddam, I was up to my neck with things that weren’t right and tired of it. The last thing I wanted was to find out I’d been sent the wrong belt.

She played with both belts, trying them on like she was in a fashion show. A few minutes later she said, “This one goes on the pilot’s side.”

We held it up so it matched the attaching bolt holes, and I knew she was right. The manufacturer had either mislabeled the belts or “right hand” and “left hand” meant different things in Germany. I matched up the part numbers, making sure that the buckles and belts matched, and swapped sides. The pilot’s side belt went in like it was supposed to.

But on the co-pilot’s side I ran into a problem, not with the belts but with my airplane. The screw in its side that attached the belt turned and turned but didn’t seem to be coming out. I pried on it a bit with a screwdriver to see if I could pop it out in case it was hung up, but it didn’t budge. Cursing, I told Connie I had run into a problem and couldn’t get a screw out. I decided to leave it up to Bill rather than risk damaging something else.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said, as I returned the keys to him again. “Another problem.”

When I told him about it, Bill thought that a nut plate the screw rotated into behind the frame might be busted loose.

“That’s not a big job,” he said. “We’ll get to it tomorrow.”

The next afternoon, Bill called, saying: “Your airplane is ready. Come fly it!”

Of course, I had to call him and ask what been wrong.

“Nothing,” he said, “other than the screw was hung up pretty good.”

I laughed.

“So, all I needed to do was to have pulled a little harder, right?”

“That’s about it.”

“Okay, well, I’ll be down this afternoon. Mr. Gardner has said he’d fly me down.”

One of the nice things about working with a bunch of pilots is I can occasionally get a ride somewhere when I need it. A majority of the folks in my group are pilots, and most of them fly general aviation aircraft. Jim Gardner is one of those, and he is a flight instructor to boot who owns a Cessna 120. I had asked Jim earlier if he could give me a lift down to get the airplane if it came up; Connie was busy working late and couldn’t take me down to get it. So we left work a little early, me earlier than Jim so I could drop by the house and pick up my camera.

I parked my car, a white 2004 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, behind the covered tie down my airplane lives in. A covered tie-down is like a carport for an airplane; it has a roof but is otherwise open on all sides. Grabbing my flight bag, I walked across the airport’s cement taxiways past the new metal hangars and over to the airport’s house trailer of a Terminal building. It was a nice day. Sunny and comfortable, not warm or cool. I sat on the Terminal’s wooden steps, looking across the airport at the metal hangar building I knew Jim’s airplane was in. After waiting ten minutes and not seeing his truck at the hangar, I grabbed my bag and walked down the airport ramp toward the south end of the taxiway/runway and toward his hangar. Yards away, the elephantine machines reconstructing the airport’s main runways lumbered past. I cut by them and through the grass that separated me from Jim’s hangar. As I got to my final approach, Jim’s little red Chevy pickup truck pulled up to the hangar door; and Jim got out and opened the hangar.

“Decided to go for a walk, did you?” he commented.

“The winds are out of the north,” I answered. “This way you didn’t have to taxi all the way up to the Terminal and back down again.”

His Cessna 120 is silver and red, a two-person high-wing airplane that drags its tail along the ground instead of hauling a nose-gear around like my Cheetah does. Jim pulled his truck into his hangar, angling it in underneath the airplane’s left wing. (Note: I spent a few years in the Navy and flying the Navy, so I tend to think of the left side as the “port” side and right as “starboard”. Navy aircrews are trained to think that way even in the air. I’ll try to remember to refer to things as “left” and “right”; but if I don’t, you’ll know why.) Cracking the cowling, he rotated the engine’s oilstick with a grunt, mumbling that since they put the new one in, it’s rather tight. Trying to be helpful, I turned and pushed on the hangar door behind me since it was still in front of the other wing, but the door didn’t budge. I checked the door’s tracks but saw nothing blocking them, so I walked to its rear where I found a metal latch locking it open. I pushed the latch out of the way and turned back to find Jim at the door pushing it.

He turned back toward his airplane, heading for the tail. I headed for the wing strut to help him push the airplane out but he was content to push it out himself onto the small taxiway in front of the place, turning the airplane’s nose to our left.

“I hate taxiing all the way round the hangar,” he said. “They know better than that.”

A grey Toyota pickup with a camper top on it sat to our right, parked in front of a closed hanger door and presenting a potential collision with a taxiing Cessna’s wing. A small ditch to the west of the north/south taxiway ensured you couldn’t taxi off on the grass to get around it.

“They’re not airplane people,” I said. “That hangar is being used as a car garage, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, some kind of race car.”

We opened the 120’s metal doors and I hauled up my bag full of flight gear to put it on the shelf behind the seats; but Jim stopped me by pulling the seats forward and exposing the baggage compartment behind them and below the shelf. His intercom sat up on the shelf, so I pitched my headset up there to connect its chords, turned, stepped up to the step on the airplane’s wing strut, and pushed myself up into the passenger seat. Jim climbed in. He handed me my headset, and we pulled the seat straps tight and closed the doors. With his floppy, laminated paper checklist in his lap, Jim flipped the switches that turned the airplane’s electrical system on, called “Clear Prop!”, and then pulled a handle at the top of his instrument panel. The engine’s starter kicked, the prop whirled, and the engine started with a satisfying little grumble. We moved down the little taxiway, Jim steering the little airplane with his feet, hands resting on the pilot’s yoke and the throttle.

“ I really don’t like taxiing down the south side like this,” he said. I didn’t ask him why as he circled around the end of the hangar and taxied north past it, between it and another hanger immediately east. I did feel a bit confined, and there is always the danger of someone pulling out of their hangar in front of you without looking, though you’d hope most pilots are more “head’s up” than that.

At the end of the hangar, we hit the east/west taxiway and turned west on it, taxiing past the now all but abandoned Nighthawk Sky Signs hangar. The company had run into hard times after one of their Ag-Cats lost power and landed in a schoolyard, its final perch on a fence. They were still rebuilding airplanes torn apart for inspection, so we only saw them now and again. We taxied on past our old runway, mostly covered with new concrete now but some parts of it still showing the bare earth it had been stripped down to. I commented to Jim that it didn’t look to me like they were going to make the projected February 10th completion date; he replied that they were at least two weeks behind. Damn! I hated to be anxious, but I was tired of not being able to fly at night. The taxiway “runway” works fine in the day and could be safely flown at night if your landing light was good, there was some kind of moon, and there wasn’t much crosswind. But your insurance would probably never pay off if anything untoward happened, so it wasn’t probably wasn’t worth it.

In any case, Jim’s nose was straight-ahead as he stared a hole in the sky while looking for downwind traffic. I pointed an airplane out on a distant base leg and almost ninety-degrees to us. Jim didn’t see it at first; but once he did, he wondered why we hadn’t heard anything over the radio. He checked the radio’s volume knob and turned it up. We heard the Cessna call “short final”.

The Cessna landed in front of us, slowed quickly, and turned off up near the gas pumps. Jim taxied his airplane up on the taxiway, left of centerline, and gave it the gas. As we sped forward, I felt the tail come up and Jim called we were departing over the radio. The airplane danced a bit in the unsteady crosswind, and then we were airborne, climbing away.

As we passed a thousand feet, Jim turned the airplane south and then gave the airplane to me so he could look at some airport construction he didn’t understand.

“Let’s go down at about fifteen hundred,” he instructed.

Jim had leveled us off and already adjusted the trim, so I used light pressures on the yoke to fish around for the altitude. It was a bright sunny day, not a cloud anywhere, with at least 20 knot winds out of the north, making our ride a little turbulent but not bad. The visibility was great. Though the city of Galveston was still over twenty miles away, we could still make it out. I pointed my nose at the spot on the horizon I thought the airport was.

The grey ribbon of Interstate 45 South snaked to our right across the green, water dotted flatlands. We flew past League City and Dickinson and slowly edged past the huge refineries that mark Texas City. I continued to fly until we approached Galveston Bay, and then I handed the airplane back to Jim so he could make the landing.

The homes of Tiki Island were flowing under our nose as Jim called the tower. A young, female controller cleared us for a left downwind entry to runway 35. Crossing the bay, we made the slight rightward jog that put the runway on our left, and Jim turned base and final as I watched a Canadair jet crawl along the taxiway toward runway 31. The jet was told to hold short as Jim flared the nose and settled us gently on runway 35’s surface.

“That’s a nice little runway you’ve got for us,” he said over the radio.

“We appreciate you using it,” the controller replied, acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between pilots and air traffic controllers that truly does exist, though it often seems forgotten.

Turning off on taxiway Delta, the Terminal in front of us, Jim reported clear of the runway and the tower asked him what his intentions were. We were taxiing to Texas Flight Line, he said, and the tower approved that but did not instruct him to switch to Ground. A moment later, as we turned onto Taxiway Alpha, the one long taxiway that curls around to both runways, Jim asked me if the tower had told him to switch to Ground and I answered “no”. The tower confirmed it when he called, telling him he could “remain this frequency”.

We taxied north toward two rows of metal hangars that are perpendicular to the taxiway, turning down toward the middle of the nearest set and squeezing in between them and the rows of helicopters belonging to Evergreen Aviation. Bill’s hangar is the third one from the west end and can also be distinguished by its large, open door and the fact that it always contains several airplanes in various stages of undress. Jim swung the Cessna around so its nose was facing back toward the taxiway and my door was facing the hangar.

“Let’s hop out,” he said, as he shut down the Cessna’s engine.

Pushing open the small, metal door, I carefully used the wing-mounted step to step down, turning to fetch my flight bag from behind our seats and unplugging my headset from the intercom. Bill’s red-headed college student helper watched us unload with a “what are you doing?” look. I didn’t see Bill at first because he was standing behind his golf cart and talking to another customer.

When he saw me, Bill headed straight for his workbench to fetch my airplane keys, thrown into a drawer they have that holds keys to every airplane in the United States or at least in Texas, or so it seems. After digging for a few moments, he found mine and handed them to me. I had thought it would have been easy since I had a little tag bearing the airplane’s N-number on it, but I noticed as he handed them to me that the little tag was all but torn off. It had been here too many times.

We chatted for a moment and he told me he had the final bills for the alternator and brake repair done, so I followed him out of the hangar around to the trailer that served as his office. The metal canister reminds me of one of those wheel-less boxcars you see loaded first on railcars and then on ships. In its darkness, he dug through its files, located the invoices, and handed them to me. Together, they came to just under $1300, right where I was expecting them to be. Neither of them carried a charge for finishing up my seat belt job. I think Bill wanted to just get me out of there.

Jim appeared from the other side of the hangar, asking if I was going out to my airplane. From the way he was asking the question, I surmised he wanted to leave. Knowing it would take me another ten to fifteen minutes to preflight my airplane and get settled in, I thanked him for the ride over and told him to take off if he felt he needed to. He said something about wanting to make sure he didn’t leave me stranded if I got snakebit again, but I assured him I would call Connie on my cell and get her to come after me if that happened.

Thanking Bill and promising to get the check in the mail the next morning, I walked from his office boxcar to my Cheetah which was tied won near a twin and a Bonanza missing some pieces. Stepping up on the Chettah’s wing, I unlocked the canopy and pitched my flightbag into the passenger seat. Walking around the airplane from left to right, I performed my standard preflight inspection. Deciding that she looked ready to go, I stepped back up on the wing on the pilot’s side of the airplane and then lowered myself carefully into its cockpit. Pulling my headset and the “push-to-talk” switch out of my flightbag, I hooked them up, put my checklist and the Houston Terminal Area VFR chart up on the windscreen, and then pulled the new seatbelt with its attached shoulder harness over my head and cinched them up.

I started my pre-start checklist: Exterior Preflight Complete. Seat Belts and Shoulder Harnesses adjusted and locked. Avionics and Electrical Equipment Off. Brakes Checked. Then, on to my Engine Start checklist: Primer- Two shots of primer which is done by pulling out on a bar marked “Primer” and pushing it in two times. Mixture-Rich. Carb Heat-Off. Master-On. I hear the instrument gyros begin to spin up. Flashing Beacon – ON to give others a warning I’m about to start. Fuel Pump –On until I see anything above .5 psi on the Fuel Pressure gauge, normally it’s up about 5 psi. Fuel Pump –Off.

“Clear Prop!” I cry.

Magnetos- Left. I push the “Starter” button and the engine spins and starts right up. Magnetos- Both. I check the engine’s oil pressure. It’s already in the green. Avionics and Radios-On. I turn every radio on the cockpit on and check my ammeter. It’s holding steady right on “0”, meaning that the alternator is keeping up with the load. I flip the switch controlling the audio to my #2 Comm radio to “Headset” and listen to a computerized voice call out the current Galveston weather, winds, and altimeter setting. I set the altimeter to the right setting and then double-check that it corresponds to the field elevation within a few feet. It does. The airplane is ready to taxi. I let her move forward about a foot and then hit the brakes to make sure they’re working. You can’t taxi a Grumman without them.

Normally, I do my engine runup and pre-takeoff checks out near the takeoff runway. But they were taking off on runway 35 today, and that meant taxiing to the far end of a rather large airfield. No sense in doing that if something was just going to break, so I taxied a few feet forward to the end of the ramp and spun the airplane around. There was nothing behind me but grass and bay, so I ran the engine up and did the rest of my pre-takeoff checks sitting right there. And heard and saw Jim take off using runway 35. I had hoped to fly back with him but knew I wouldn’t now. He would be too far ahead.

One of the last four steps in the takeoff checklist involved turning on my electrically-driven auxiliary fuel pump. I didn’t want to run the pump unnecessarily, so I decided to wait until I was at the hold short ready for takeoff before turning it on. “Fuel pump to go,” I told myself, completing all the other steps but its.

I taxied the airplane out from behind the hangars so me and my radios had a clear line of sight to the tower and called Galveston Ground for takeoff. A male voice on Ground told me to hold my position. He was letting a helicopter from one of the local companies “taxi” to its line, and a helicopter taxis by hovering just feet above the ground and moving slowly forward or back as its pilot wants, blowing to kingdom come everything anywhere close. So, I agreed. But then the helicopter made its way in and settled to the ground, and I sat there patiently waiting for Ground to let me go. But he didn’t. Just as I was thinking the guy forgot about me, the female controller who had landed Jim and me said, “Calling Ground, say again.” But so long had passed since I had called I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me. So, I waited to see if anyone else answered. They didn’t. I decided to start over.

“Galveston Ground, November Niner Eight Four Eight Uniform at the north hangars ready for taxi for takeoff VFR,” I said.

“November Niner Eight Four Eight Uniform, cleared to taxi to runway 35, altimeter three zero one zero,” Ground answered.

Acknowledging the call, I edged the airplane forward and we loped down the taxiway, me popping the right brake off and on to keep the left-drifting nose aligned with the yellow stripe centered on the taxiway. At the other end of the field, after looking first, I taxied across runway 31 toward the yellow stripes that marked the “hold short” lines of runway 35. Fuel pump ON. Check the trim, flaps, and canopy. Switch the radio the Galveston Tower Frequency, 120.57.

“Galveston Tower, November Niner Eight Four Eight Uniform, ready to takeoff runway 35.”

“November Niner Eight Four Eight Uniform, cleared for takeoff,” the male voice said, following me over here.

“Four Eight Uniform,” I replied, shoving the throttle forward.

The little Cheetah leaped forward, accelerating smoothly. At 60, I pulled back smoothly on the yoke, and she lifted smoothly off the ground. The winds were on the nose and from my right; I cocked the nose into the wind just enough to hold the runway centerline, and we climbed out into the blue skies over the bay. At a thousand feet, I turned off the auxiliary fuel pump, and the engine continued to purr, assurance that the engine driven fuel pump was still working, or it would have gotten very quiet, not counting the expletives from my Navy-trained lips.

I leveled off at about fifteen hundred feet, letting the airplane accelerate out to an airspeed of a little over 120 miles per hour. Crossing over the causeway bridge that connected Galveston to the mainland, I flew northbound but kept west of the British Petroleum plant near Texas City, just in case the damn plant blew up again. Heading toward a large field north of the plant, I climbed up to about two thousand feet and then leveled off again to perform steep turns (level, 60 degree angle of bank turns that require you to pull two G’s), takeoff stalls (nose way up in the air), landing stalls (flaps full down, power to idle, descending at landing speeds and then pull the nose up gently until she stalls), and slow flight (didn’t do as well as last time, actually got into a nibble of a stall there). Descending down to thirteen hundred feet, I headed north, up the jagged coastline of Galveston Bay, passed the humpback Kema bridge and its small bevy of restaurants, passed another petroleum plant, and then headed toward the black asphalt runway of La Porte airport on my left. Pulling into the pattern, I did two touch and go landings in a stiff crosswind. On the second, as I added power to takeoff again, the airplane leapt into the air, and though it was climbing out okay, it was a bit sluggish. I had added power before retracting the flaps from landing, and the airplane had sprung off the ground immediately. I had a fair rate of climb and good airspeed, so I raised them noting that you could climb out at least on a cool day with your flaps stuck full down in a Cheetah. How much runway it might take to get off the ground in such a configuration was another story.

Leaving the airport, I headed south again, looping counterclockwise around Ellington airfield’s airspace by flying down the middle of Clear Lake, just south of the NASA complex, and just south of the homes and businesses dotting NASA Road One. I could see my homebase airport ahead, a large, sparsely populated, flat expanse in the middle of trees and development. There was no one but me in the airport’s traffic pattern, so I flew across the field from east to west and into a downwind for runway 32R.

After landing, I taxied the airplane canopy-open back to our little covered tiedown, swung it around so I could push her tail-first into it, and shutdown. It was nice to have my little airplane back home again; and, thankfully, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have anything new that needed fixing. God knows, I needed it to stay that way at least for a little while.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

Owning an airplane, if my airplane is any indicator, is a mixed blessing. And sometimes a curse. We knew when we bought the thing it could be a money-pit; an old, used car has nothing on an airplane when it comes to that. A friend of my wife’s who used to own an airplane (She bought one for her son.) sums it up like this: “Friends don’t let friends buy airplanes.”

A couple of weekends ago, we flew the Cheetah from Pearland Regional (LVJ) where she is based to Stinson Field in San Antonio. It was the perfect day to fly. Not a cloud in the sky and probably 50 miles visibility, more than I had seen in this part of Texas ever. We navigated by chart and by GPS and landed at Stinson a little over an hour and a half after leaving Houston. We met with a bunch of other Grumman owners for lunch, a small meeting, and some picture taking. If you’ve never been to Stinson, it’s a pretty little place, with a terminal encasing a restaurant in a building taller than but somewhat reminiscent of the Alamo, at least in style.

The airplane backfired when I started it, an indicator I had primed the engine too much, but had not exhibited any other problems. Yet. The tower asked me if we wanted flight following when I requested permission to taxi out. I told them “no”. It was such a clear day I didn’t feel I wanted it. It would turn out that would simplify the situation that was about to happen.

We took interval on a Piper that took off ahead of us and turning left, headed east. I climbed the airplane at best rate airspeed, 91 mph while looking for two thousand foot towers nearby. San Antonio fell behind us as I climbed us up to 5500 feet, where we leveled off and I set 75% power for cruise. Visibility going east was still fabulous and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No bumps. A perfect flying day…until I began hearing a beeping I couldn’t identify. Plus the voices on the radio were getting awfully fuzzy and the radios were starting to buzz. Looking around the cockpit for the cause, I noticed that the ammeter was showing a discharge. That meant the alternator had dropped offline and the battery was carrying the load. I checked the alternator circuit breakers and they were in. To try the Cessna alternator reset trick, I cycled the Alternator half of the Master Switch. Nothing changed. I turned off Comm 2, my extra VOR radio, and the DME leaving up the #1 NAV/COMM radio, the KLN-89B GPS, and the transponder. We had been heading over to the Brazoria County airport to land and gas up, so I changed course back slightly north toward our homeport of Pearland and told my wife what I was doing. Borrowing her handheld GPS, I reprogrammed it to fly direct to Pearland, using it to tell me the exact heading I needed to fly.

“Do we need to land?” my wife asked. “Yoakum is right over there.”

“Not unless we spot smoke or fire,” I answered. Probably not the most diplomatic thing to say, but it was what was on my mind. I wasn’t certain why the plane’s electrical system was dying. More than likely, either the alternator or the voltage regulator had quit, but my insight into the system were simply voltage and ammeter readouts. I’d need more than that to spot a short. I figured a bad one would get something hot.

“The engine has magnetos,” I continued. “It will continue to run until it runs out of gas. The only thing we need electricity for is the radios. We can fly just fine as we are. If it was night or we were IFR, it would be a whole different story.”

I had to admit that there couldn’t have been a better time for the electrical failure to happen: bright daytime, perfectly clear sky, and outside airspace requiring me to interact with ATC. I only had to decide now where to land. I was heading us toward Pearland because that was our homed and that’s where our vehicle was. My airplane’s mechanic was in Galveston, and I knew I’d probably have to get it there sooner or later to get it repaired. But Galveston had recently become a controlled field, and going in there would mean contacting the tower on a handheld radio. Pearland is, on the other hand, uncontrolled, so I didn’t have to have a radio to land there. I also felt that I wanted to put the airplane on the ground at a place where I could more easily assess my situation. So, I elected to go there.

I now the southwest side of the city pretty well, so I really didn’t need my handheld GPS to help me figure out when to descend. We let down to 1500 feet, low enough to put us underneath any of Houston’s Class B airspace but high enough to keep us out of the traffic pattern for Houston Southwest. I made position calls to the airplanes using the place using my handheld radio. I didn’t hear any calls from the Citabria we spotted at our nine o’clock and co-altitude at about a quarter mile away, but the Cheetah’s speed got us out of harms’ way.

A few miles to the west of Pearland, I began maneuvering to land on the airport’s runway one four right. It’s not really a runway. The main runway was being rebuilt so the taxiway, which had been rebuilt earlier, had been remarked as a runway with displaced thresholds. A little narrow runway with displaced thresholds. Over the handheld, which I had to pull off my headset to hear clearly, I heard an airplane call from east of the airport. Looking, I didn’t see him so I relayed our position and our situation as I turned downwind. It’s damn noisy in my cockpit with no headset on. I ran my landing checklist, made one final call on the handheld as I tuned on base (advising them this was the last call), and then put the radio up to focus on the landing. I turned on a close final as high and fast (having added five knots for mama). In one last act of total denial, I hit the flap switch to put them down; in a half-second I knew they weren’t moving and, with an instantaneous askew look at my wife, aggressively threw us sideways into a forward slip. The airplane barreled down to a landing right on the numbers.

“Hey! What was that? I liked it!” she cried as we were rolling out.

And this is the woman I have to convince to take the yoke at 2000 feet…

The taxi back in was kind of quiet. The instrument panel was dark, not lit like it usually is. Once we had taxied the airplane back into its parking spot, I called my mechanic, Bill Wynn, and told him what happened. Probably the alternator, he thought. He might be able to get up there in a couple of days, he said, when he came up this way to work on another airplane and could charge my battery and check it out.

Connie and I buttoned the airplane up and consoled ourselves by stopping at Las Casita for dinner. It’s a nice little family-run Mexican food restaurant close to the airport. As we waited for our food, we commiserated about how we couldn’t believe another failure was happening to us again. So far, the airplane had broken after every cross-country and then some. On the first one to Missouri, we discovered a leak in the passenger side gas tank when we took off from Longview, Texas and saw fuel streaming over the top of the wing. The small lip on the fuel tank where the fuel cap attaches had rusted through just below the rim. Right after we had flown to Alabama to escape the projected onslaught of Hurricane Rita, the flap motor went out. And there was the local flight failure of the left brake during taxi for takeoff that had forced me to fly the airplane down to Galveston from the right seat (I enjoyed that, actually.) and leave it there for a few days. We also had replaced the tach when we found it was reading a 150 rpm too low, not to mention the elective surgery of having the prop overhauled and repitched to give us more climb and the refurbished KLN-89B I had stuck in to replace the KLN-89 in the airplane that was failing. (It had always had a snaky display, but on our trip back from Alabama, it had failed altogether just outside of Houston. Luckily, I knew exactly where I was and where the Class B airspace was so I didn’t need its help. We still had my handheld Lowerance Airmap 100 providing good guidance, too.)

Our troubles were not over.

We bought a battery charger at Wal-Mart, one of the newer, “smart” type of chargers you could use on different types of batteries. I pulled the battery out of my airplane and charged it up and stuck it back in. Two days later and a day later than Bill and I had originally planned to meet, I flew the airplane down to Galveston to drop it off. Bill wasn’t there. His son-in-law, Robbie, his fellow airframe and power-plant mechanic and IA (Inspector, one level above a normal A&P) met me. He wasn’t sure why I was there; he thought Bill had seen the airplane the day before. When he understood that Bill hadn’t, he told me to wait and let him take a look at the wiring. Sometimes, the wire that energized the alternator field coil would break, causing the alternator to die. Robbie grabbed a power screwdriver and began removing the large screws that held the airplane’s cowling on its nose. Once he had them out, he pulled on it but it still clung to the airframe, at least until the red-haired college student and mechanic intern came out. Working together, they dropped the cowling down low enough for Robbie to look all the wiring over.

“Well, it all looks good, “ he said after a few minutes of peering in the engine cavity with a flashlight. Which really was bad news for me since it meant I’d probably be replacing the alternator and I had to leave the airplane there instead of flying it away.

That was on Tuesday. On the following Saturday, Connie and I drove down to pick the airplane up. Connie was just recovering from the flu and was not well enough to fly, so the plan was that I would fly it to a small fly-in lunch I had organized at Brazoria County. There’s a small diner there named The Windsock that has good food and small town hospitality. But before I could get going, Bill, who was back at work, pulled me aside.

“I think you ought to see this,” he said.

Sitting on a steel drum was my old alternator.

“An aircraft alternator has a data plate on it, “ he said, pointing. “Automotive alternators have a serial number stamped on them.” And I looked and saw what appeared to be very light numbers etched in the alternator’s case. And shook my head. Someone had taken the fact that Grumman’s used Motorola alternators a little too seriously. Or not seriously enough, depending on how you looked at it.

“There’s a hundred dollar core charge on these,” he continued, and I knew exactly where he was going. The service center where he had bought the alternator was likely to reject the core we would turn in, and Connie and I would be out an extra $100 because someone else tried to save a few bucks and cut some corners.

I was learning the hard way how often aircraft owners and their mechanics cut corners.

After getting my keys back, I started the airplane up and glanced at the ammeter and it was charging the battery and all was good, at least until I was taxiing out after having gassed her up. I had gotten clearance from the tower to taxi to takeoff when my left brake failed. I called the tower and told them I’d have to shut down where I was at and cursed the damn thing as I pushed it into a tiedown spot. Bill’s hangar was still in the line of sight. They had seen me shut down and were headed toward me in a golf cart.

I rode the golf cart back and told Bill that the brake had failed and he and I took the cart and some brake fluid in a squirt can back out to the airplane. Bill spent a few moments upside down in the pilot’s seat servicing the master cylinders behind the rudder pedals. I watched as he pumped the pedals up and down.

“It’s pumping up, “ he said. “For a moment, I didn’t think it would.”

But even though the airplane had brakes again, it had been completely serviced only a few months before. That meant that even though I had never spotted any hydraulic fluid during a pre-flight, there was a leak somewhere in the system. Though I could have chosen to take the airplane to the fly-in and would have been perfectly safe, it made no sense to me not only to take that risk but to have to make another trip back to Galveston and inconvenience Connie or someone else to get me back home. As Bill returned to his hangar in his golf cart, I re-started the airplane and taxied over to meet him. Shutting it down, I handed him the keys and asked him to find the brake leak and fix it. We both thought that, more than likely, the left brake master cylinder on the pilot’s side had died; and that it was the cause of my troubles.

We were right. And wrong. The left master cylinder on the pilot’s side was leaking. So, were the other three in the airplane. Rebuilding them was mostly a matter of replacing o-rings and seals and Bill had those parts in his shop. But the one big problem, and the major reason why the left brake cylinder had failed, was that the push rod connecting the pedal to the cylinder was bent about 30 degrees. Someone had performed a panic stop. A REAL PANIC STOP…an “I’m going to DIE!” panic stop at some point in the airplane’s life. (And I had a guess whom it had been.)…someone with very strong legs.


“You know what an airplane is?” a gentleman asked a friend of mine outside Bill’s hangar some days later. “It’s a hole in the sky you pour money into.”

We knew airplanes had that kind of reputation. But what we were seeing with this Cheetah seemed a bit ridiculous. Since last May (and it was the following January when this was happening), between the previous owner and us, we had invested $7950 in repairs and minor upgrades. It was eating our lunch financially. And I know we’ve still got a sticking altimeter that needs repair, a transponder and altimeter certification due in a few months, and the annual coming up in May.

It was beginning to look like we were going to have to win the lotto to keep the airplane at all.
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