A dangerous flight



Dispatch from KSAF, Santa Fe, New Mexico: By dawn’s early light I can see the silver fins of the stroker engine through the air intakes in the nose bowl, the front cylinders a pair of griffins in twin caves, ready to leap from their lairs and devour slower prey.

The new engine is ready to fly.

But Race 53 still isn’t ready to race. One important task remains: The engine break-in.

The stroker engine was born at 7,539 feet above sea level, and hung on the plane at 6,349 feet. To properly set the piston rings we need to get her to lower altitude as quickly as possible, and run her hot and hard.

My mechanic cautions me to minimize low RPM: No long descents, land with some power, keep the taxiing as short as possible.

Back in the saddle

I’m eager to go. It’s been too long since I’ve been behind the controls of my favorite plane. I slide down into the cockpit and take a moment to relish the environment. I breathe in the airplane smell of metal, oil, fuel, and plastic — a unique perfume only aviators appreciate. I run my fingers gently over her yoke and throttle.

I snap my iPad into its holder on the instrument panel and stow four bottles of oil in the cargo compartment, along with mixed nuts, string cheese, peanut M&Ms, and a sack of Duke’s sausage sticks — our traditional inflight meals on cross-country flights.Then I stand on the bench seat, and using a soft cotton towel, I wipe a thin layer of tan dust off the grey plastic of my windshield.

You know your plane has been hangared too long when there’s dust on the windshield.

Then…that’s it. We’re fueled heavily and packed lightly. It’s time to go.

Best laid plans…

The sun has crested the mountains. Race 53 casts a long, wicked-looking shadow in front of her, hawk-like, showing her inner raptor. Lisa tightens her seat belt and snaps her shoulder belt into place. She grins.

“It’s good to be back in the saddle again,” she says, then slips her new Zulu 3 over her trademark Sundance Aviation baseball cap.

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Race 53 back in the air at last… But not for long. (Photo by Lisa F. Bentson)

I flip the silver master switch upward and the attitude indicator and engine monitor screens flicker to life. Aviation sure has changed a lot in the last few years. In the days of steam gauges even abandoned relics looked ready to fly. Now the best-equipped cockpits look like eyeless zombies on the ramp.

I had hoped to take off before the tower opened, meeting Lisa at 5:15 a.m. for the drive over to Santa Fe, but it took longer than I thought to get Race 53 ready. As I flip the radio switch on I hear the ATIS crackle in my ears, “…Class D airspace is now in effect.”

Well, damn.

I listen more. The tower has started the day taking off and landing on Runway 02. Double damn. So much for our plane plans.

Knowing that the most likely time for an engine to fail is shortly after a major overhaul, Lisa, Rio and I spent the night carefully laying out a chain of emergency procedures for various altitudes.

When do I try to put it back on the runway? How high can I be before I try the “impossible turn?” Where should I put down among the mixed industrial and residential buildings that surround the airport if we lose the engine in that danger zone where there’s too much altitude to get back on the runway, but too little to turn back?

We studied Google Earth satellite images of the areas surrounding the airport, choosing emergency landing zones off of the end of each of the four active runways at the field. We liked Runway 22 the best.

So now what? The wind is less than four knots, the tower would probably give me 22 if I asked, but there’s already three planes in the pattern this morning. It might mean waiting, idling, at low RPM, bad for the new engine. I decide to go with the flow and call ground control for taxi clearance, and release the parking brake.

“OK, we turn slightly left for the field between the cement factory and the gas distributor if things go south on us,” I say to Lisa, more to remind myself, than anything else, as we taxi down Alpha past the control tower.

Last night we also argued about the wisdom of taking another person on this dangerous flight vs. the safety an extra set of hands and eyes could provide. I leaned toward solo, but Lisa is as stubborn as a mule when her mind is made up, which is why she’s sitting next to me right now.

“Roger that,” she replies.

Seeing red

We’re cleared for takeoff. I turn off my ANR so I can hear the engine better. It’s giving off a dull, steady thrumming noise. It’s a different song than our old engine, but it sounds healthy.

I listen for any cough, any hesitation, any roughness. Nothing. The engine is giving out a smooth drumbeat of steady noise. I rest my hand on Race 53’s dash. The vibration is smooth, fluid.

I pull out onto the runway, rolling over the giant painted runway number, pointing Race 53’s nose towards the line of center stripes. This is it. I cinch my shoulder belt tighter, then wrap my hand around the throttle, smoothly push it forward. The dull thrum becomes an angry snarl. Then the snarl shifts to a throaty baritone that evolves into a deep roar. The airspeed indicator is alive.

The controls become heavy as air rushes over them. The wide centerline stripes shoot under us, coming faster now. I steal one last glance at the new engine monitor that shows me RPM, cylinder head temps, exhaust gas temps, fuel flow, oil pressure, and oil temp all in one place — everything is in the green — then my eyes are out of the cockpit.

The stripes rush under us now, the deep throaty roar of the engine is steady. No need to abort. Gingerly I pull the yoke back and Race 53 slides smoothly into the air.

A red light flashes on the panel. We’re 75 feet up.

I glace down at the engine monitor. I’ve redlined the RPM. Instead of being alarmed, I smile and keep climbing, the red light winking on and off, on and off, in my peripheral vision.

The heart of a 100 horsepower 0-200 beats inside the crankcase of my 85-horse engine. The beefier crank redlines higher than my old crank, but the regs require the monitor to be set for the lower-performing engine. We weren’t sure, but we suspected the new engine would trigger the RPM alarm. So long as the engine temps are good, there’s no issue.

I’m now at 250 feet. The air is smooth, although slightly hazy. My soul is singing with joy, back in the air. I’m cleared for a right turnout. I bank right, beginning the turn. Turning away from my only safe place to put the plane down off the end of this runway if the engine fails. We’ve been in the air less than a minute.

The red light is winking on and off, on and off, in my peripheral vision. The deep throaty roar of the engine is steady.

350 feet. I’m trying to sense how different this new engine is, but it’s too early to tell. I line up on course. 500 feet. I level off. We’re not going any higher today.

Ground speed is 108 miles an hour. Well that sucks. On course. RPM a whopping 2700. Not at an 0-200’s max, but the best I’ve ever seen in this plane. The state penitentiary is off to my right. We’re four miles from the airport.

Cylinder head temps good on all four, as are the individually measured exhaust gas temps. Oil temp is in the green and oil pressure is…Zero?

I lean forward and squint at the dial.

The engine monitor reporting zero oil pressure, Race 53 turns back to Santa Fe minutes into an engine break-in flight. (Photo by Lisa F. Bentson)

The red light is winking on and off, on and off, in my peripheral vision. The deep throaty roar of the engine is steady.

That can’t be…“Hey, Lisa, I’ve got a zero oil pressure reading here.”

That’s not possible. Not THAT quickly. It’s been less than two and a half minutes since we lifted off.

“It’s got to be a bad sensor,” I tell her, thinking out loud more than anything else. It was fine a second a go…Wasn’t it?

The red light is winking on and off, on and off, in my peripheral vision. The deep throaty roar of the engine is steady.

Lisa leans over to look, frowns. “Talk to me,” she says.

The day is lovely. The plane wraps around me like a security blanket. I want to fly. I want to get back into the races for the Sport Air Racing League. I don’t want to go back.

Plus for proper break in, I really need to keep the RPM up and — before I can finish the thought, my hands take over, turning the plane back.

I thumb the mike switch, “Santa Fe tower, November three niner seven six hotel, we’re showing zero oil pressure and would like to return to the field.”

“It’s gotta be the sensor,” I tell Lisa. “But no sense in taking a chance. We’ll land, get it fixed, and hopefully be back on our way in no time.”

The tower controller, who had five minutes ago caustically chided me for neglecting to say the exact runway number I was cleared to during my taxi read-back, is now 100% helpful.

“Seven six hotel, cleared to land runway 33, I’m holding all other traffic, do you require assistance?”

I roll out of my turn, runway 33 low off my nose. If the engine quits now I’ll be a tangled pile of metal in the bottom of the arroyo off the end of the runway.

“Negative,” I reply, “this is a precautionary landing. I think it’s a bum sensor.”

The red light is winking on and off, on and off, in my peripheral vision. The deep throaty roar of the engine is steady.

I hold the RPMs high. We shoot in over the juniper trees. At the last second I chop the power and Race 53 settles onto the numbers. It’s a lovely landing. I coast off the first taxiway and operations return to normal at Santa Fe Municipal.

The red light on the panel is still winking on and off, on and off. The engine monitor still displays zero oil pressure. So sure am I that this is just a loose wire on the newly installed engine monitor that it never occurs to me to shut down the plane right there and then, between the runways, and get out and look.

I contact ground control and am cleared to taxi back to where this adventure all started five minutes ago. I taxi with a high RPM and a light foot on the brake. As we near our mechanic’s hangar I kill the engine and coast in the last 50 feet.

Our unexpected return brings my chief wrench turner out on to the tarmac. I slide my door down into the belly of the plane as he walks up.

“I think I got a bad sensor, here,” I tell him. “It’s saying zero oil pressure.”

His face is grim, lips drawn in a tight frown. “Well,” he says, “you are leaking oil.”

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A long trail of oil marks Race 53’s progress across the ramp after landing. (Photo by William E. Dubois)

It’s a punch in the stomach. I release my belt, scramble onto the wing, and drop to the ground. Behind Race 53 is a solid, glistening path of oil, a snail’s slime trail, leading back toward the runway. I can’t process what I’m seeing. I kneel down. Oil is dripping from every surface, starting at the wing root and leading all the way back to the tail cone.

“Let me get some tools,” says my mechanic, and heads back to the hangar. Lisa is now out of the plane on the other side. Surveying the oil slick leading back along our taxi path, her face turns pale.

My mechanic is back. The cowl is open on both sides. The engine is clean and dry. Where is the oil coming from?

With shaking hands I pull the dipstick. At first glance it appears clean and dry. A wave of nausea sweeps over me as it hits me: I might have destroyed my new engine five minutes after writing a very large check simply because I was too stupid to shut down the second I rolled off the runway.

In my mind’s eye I see the red light winking on and off, on and off.

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Looking for the source of the oil leak, the crew finds the oil sump nearly empty. They estimate the engine was shedding nearly half a quart of oil per minute. (Photo by William E. Dubois)

My League Points: Frozen at 840, where it’s looking like they might still be at end the season.

My League Standing: Second place behind Charles Cluck, who’s flooded Houston-area airport reopened just in time for him to make it to the Thunderbird Air Race in Arizona. He now stands at 1,140 points.

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