Saturday, July 24, 2004

Engine problems again

I had just pre-flighted my airplane for this weekend's flight. I filled it up with gas and pushed the MX out of the hangar and started the engine. It started on the first pull. I quickly put in my ear plugs and muffs and gathered my GPS and such and shut the hangar doors. I strapped in and attached my GPS to the velcro strap that I used to secure it to my left leg. I pushed the throttle forward and the plane moved about ten feet and then the engine started to sputter. I tried to nurse the throttle to keep it running, but it didn't help. The engine quit anyway.

I got out and turned around and there was a huge cloud of gray smoke behind the airplane, slowly drifting away with the minimal breeze. I tried to start the engine again and it ran for just a few more seconds, billowing the area with smoke. I'm wondering what is going on here. I pulled on the rope again and again, but it still didn't start. I'm really miffed at this point. This engine only has about 15 hours on it and it never performed perfectly right from the start. I have informed the guy who sold it to me of all the problems I've had along the way, so he definitely knows the troubles I've had.

I suspect that maybe I've put oil in the gas twice without realizing it, so I drain all the gas. This takes about an hour because the fuel has to drain through a three-sixteenths diameter fuel line by gravity. Aggravating the draining process is the fact that I have to hold a can up to the hose while it's draining because it isn't long enough to put the can on the ground. Let's just say it is a very long, messy and smelly process that I'm not anxious to repeat. This particular visit to the hanger I previously filled up and mixed two five gallon cans this time, anticipating doing some serious flying, so I refilled the tank with the other can that I've mixed and try to re-start the engine. No-can-do. The engine is still showing the same symptoms, very wet rear cylinder spark plug and bunches of smoke when it fires. There's no way that I've overmixed two separate containers of gasoline....or is there?

I've had it with this engine and I'm going to send it back and request a replacement. As I disconnect the driveline, I slowly turn over the engine while the prop is not attached. As I do, I hear a click, click, click. The bearings on the crankshaft of a Rotax two-cycle are ball bearings, They have a certain number of balls, evenly spaced by a carrier. The clicking sound indicated that the carrier had somehow broken and the balls were free-floating between the inner and outer races. The bearing carrier (it's a phenolic resin material) broke and went through the engine. I'm not sure if this caused the problem, but it was certainly a condition that should not be present in an engine that had been "gone through" by a mechanic. This alone is enough to warrant a replacement. I continue the removal and take the engine home with me. I contact the guy who sold it to me and told him what had happened and asked for a replacement. I expect to get a hassle, but he told me he would take care of me. He would send a replacement short block and I could transfer components from the bad engine to the good. The engine I am returning is a Rotax 377 (368 cc). Because I had so much trouble with this engine that was supposed to be trouble-free, I ask the guy if he could send a larger engine, a Rotax 503 (500 cc) for no additional cost. He agreed and we said goodbye. I was to send the 377 back after installing the 503 and insuring that everything was OK. I'm feeling good about the whole situation now. I'm gettin' a 503! Cool!

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Thank God for kind, trusting people

Well, I'm in a pickle now. I'm on the ground at a flying field and I don't have enough gas in my ultralight to get back home. Shame on me. What an idiot you are! Well, My daughter lives in nearby Columbus, Georgia. I could have her bring me some gas, but I'd still need oil and I wouldn't be able to explain to her what type. I could wait to see if someone showed up, but that might never happen. I decide to walk to the owner's house just a quarter mile up the road and explain my situation and see if he would help out. I knock and knock on the door, ring the doorbell many times, but there is no answer. The nearest gas station is about a mile and a half away and I could just picture me walking that far with 5 gallons of gas. I call my wife on the cell phone and explain my situation and I tell her I'm going to fly to the most recent field that I flew over and asess my fuel situation at that time and land if necessary. In case there wasn't anybody there to help me, I might need her to drive to me with some gas. I was thinking to myself that it would be difficult for me to explain to her where I was if I didn't know myself, but I didn't mention that to her. I mostly wanted her to know that I might be late and why. I didn't want her to worry that I had gone down someplace and injured myself.

Well, the winds are kicking up as I prepare to start my engine. To make things worse, it appears that the winds are in a westerly direction and I'll be flying into the wind. This will lessen my range due to a headwind. Things just weren't working well for me this day. I start the engine and taxi out and take off with no surprises. I set my course for the last private field (named Finkley on the chart) that I flew over, carefully watching my fuel as I fly. When I approach the strip, it was perfectly obvious that I wasn't going to make it home on the fuel I had left. I circle the airstrip and notice that the entire estate, airstrip and all, is completely fenced in. The house has a huge gate on the driveway with some nice brickwork and an electronic remote access panel to open the gate. There is a large, commercial type hangar that is all closed up. The place is beautifully landscaped. I'm thinking that this guy is going to be pissed when I land on his field. What other choice do I have? I land and taxi as close to the hangar as I dare before shutting off the engine.

As soon as I unstrap and get out, I see this large dog barrelling toward me barking, and he wasn't wagging his tail. He's about 25 yards from me and I don't know what to do, except just stand there and not act frightened...yeah, right! I figured if I stood still, the dog would stop and just bark. When he was about 5 yards away, I could see it wasn't going to stop. In the split second before the dog jumped on my shoulders and knocked me to the ground, I could see it was a black lab. As I was on the ground, the dog was licking my face! Good that he wasn't biting it, bad because it was gross!

I yelled at the dog to get down, and he did, but he was happy to see me. I pet him a bit before I started walking to the house. I half expected somebody to meet me halfway with a shotgun, but nobody appeared. I get to the door and knock on it. An older lady appears with a concerned expression on her face that somewhat diminishes when I tell her my situation. She told me her husband was in the shower and that he would know more about what type of fuel and oil they had on the premesis. Very tentatively, she asked me if I would like to wait inside. Knowing that she felt uncomfortable doing it, but couldn't let her southern hospitality be derailed, I declined her invitation and asked in my most humble manner if it would be OK if I waited outside on the picnic table. She said that would be fine.

I sat down on the table that was covered with 8 or so large-potted, red geraniums. Moments after sitting, a hummingbird flew withing 2 feet of my face and hovered for about two seconds, looking directly at me before flying off again. It was amazing!

As I was waiting, I noticed that there were two trucks under the attached carport. One was a brand new GMC Yukon Denali, the other was about a 2000 model Chevy Suburban, both immaculent. I waited on the picnic table quite nervously for at least twenty minutes. When the man finally came out, he was 60ish, tall and thin and well dressed with a perfectly combed head of silver hair. He introduced himself as Jimmy Finkley and I introduced myself and explained my situation. He asked me how much gas I needed. I said 5 gallons would be perfect, but I could probably make it home with two.

He started walking towards a wooden storage shed about 50 feet away, but stopped at the Suburban and started it before continuing on. I followed him, wondered what was up with the starting of the truck. I figured he was going to drive me to a gas station. We arrived at the storage shed and he opened the door. There were about 3 chainsaws, 4 weed eaters and a leaf blower, all of which had two-cycle engines. Jimmy said that his lawn crew (that explains the condition of the grounds) usually keeps pre-mixed gas in here, but all we could find were a couple of empty 5 gallon gas cans. Jimmy grabbed one and we walked back towards the running truck.

Before we got there, he stopped and said that he and his wife were about to leave, but he pointed to the the Suburban and said, "You can take that old truck there and go and get whatever you need at the gas station. If we aren't here when you get back, just leave the keys in the truck and put the gas can back in the shed." I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Nobody has ever extended that kind of courtesy to me before. I asked him if he was sure that would be OK, and he assured me it would be fine. I thanked him numerous times and asked for directions to the gas station, then I took off in the Suburban.

I filled the gas can at the station and decided that it would only be right if I would fill up the gas tank of Jimmy's Suburban. It was only half full. As I pumped the gas into the truck, I was at about $9 on the pump after my can was full. I stuck it in the Suburban and pumped and pumped and pumped. Past 20, 30, 35 dollars, and I was thinking my gosh, how much does this tank hold! I stopped at $40 and the truck still wasn't full. I figured that a $30 charge for the unscheduled stop would be enough, then I paid and drove back to Jimmy's house. I was only gone about 20 minutes. When I arrived, Jimmy and his wife were still there. Jimmy escorted me to my airplane and watched me mix the gas and fill up my plane. He was very interested. He said he had a Beachcraft Bonanza in the hanger (a very expensive general aviation airplane) but he was getting old and might not be able to pass his physical anymore. He said a friend of his owned a strip about 6 miles away (the one I flew over first on my way to Phenix City) and had been trying to convince him to buy an ultralight for about 3 years. He said something like my Quicksilver would be ideal for the type of flying he would care to do now.

As I filled my tank, he instructed me to wait to take off. He was going to get his video camera and tape me. He returned and when I tried to start my engine, I flooded it. What else can you expect when you have an audience? I finally got it started after twenty pulls or so on the rope. I strapped in, taxied to the end of the strip and took off, with Jimmy shooting the whole thing. When I got to about 300 feet above the ground, he was still taping. I decided to circle around for him to get a little more footage before heading back toward my hanger. The rest of the flight was uneventful, except that the wind was growing a bit stronger and tossing me around even more than in the morning. When I got back, I put the airplane up and checked the GPS. I had traveled 82 miles total over about two and one quarter hours time. What an adventure. It wasn't long after this that I drained my fuel tank and put back in two and a half gallons of gas, which was exactly one half of a tank. I then marked that level and now I carefully watch my fuel level and compare it with my ground speed on the GPS so that I won't be stranded without fuel. Live and learn!

Oops, I flew too far!

I've been flying all around my new base station at Little Texas, Alabama and familiarizing myself with the area. I've got about ten hours on the engine now, and she seems to be running reliably. This particular morning, I set out in an easterly direction with the intention of flying to a nearby private airstrip listed on the charts. It's a beautiful July morning. The winds are not completely calm. Since I've only a flown a few hours since my 8+ year hiatus, I'm still uncomfortable when the wind and thermals shove the airplane around. Remember, my airplane only weighs about 250 pounds empty. I get real tense in the seat every time a gust lifts a wing and as quickly as possible I correct with the rudder (I don't have any ailerons), only to be blown awry again, but still, I'm flying and it's a beautiful day, and I want to keep flying!

I'm using my handheld GPS to navigate. I keep it secured to my left leg with an elastic strap that has velcro on it. It says I'm within a mile of the strip, but since I had to transcribe the coordinates from the aviation chart, I could be off a bit. I search all in front of me, and finally I see it. I've only been in the air for 30 minutes at this point, and I don't want to turn back yet! I decide to head to another private strip, about 6 miles east of where I'm at now. I go through the same navigation method using the GPS, and shortly I see the strip in front of me. It only took about 6 more minutes to reach this spot. It is a beautiful estate with a large house, a perfectly manicured field and an equipment shelter with open sides, full of farm equipment and such. At 23 miles, this is the farthest I've been from my base hangar since I've started flying again. I'm still not ready to quit. There's a strip in Phenix City, Alabama that has a bunch of light planes and ultralights. This is about 18 miles from where I'm at now. I've been there by car before, but never by air. I decide to fly there!

Since I haven't flown this far at one time in years, and never with this engine, I'm concerned that I won't have enough fuel to get back. Surely, if I have a problem, there will be somebody at the airstrip that will be preparing to fly. They could take me to get some fuel and oil (it's a 2-cycle engine) if they didn't have any on-hand. I'll probably have enough need to worry.

So, I follow the GPS map to the general vacinity of the airstrip. It right on the edge of Smith's Station, Alabama, which has grown up considerably since I was there by car about 10 years ago. I'm trying my hardest not to directly fly over peoples houses and stay over what remains of farm fields, but it's getting increasingly difficult. Add in the fact that it's Sunday morning, about 10 o'clock and there are a few churches that I really want to stay away from. One complaint from a congregation is bad news for us who fly ultralights. It invites prying from the FAA to see if we are really compliant with the very few rules that govern ultralights. I certainly don't want any trouble, so I stay far away from the churches and try to be as considerate as I can of other people and their property.

According to the GPS, I should be right on top of this airstrip, but I can't seem to find it. I don't panic, because as I said, I've driven to it before and I could follow the roads to find it if I had to, but each additional unnecessary moment in the air at this point means one less minute I'll have to get back home. I finally spot the airstrip. It's got 25 foot pine trees that have grown up all around it. No wonder I had a hard time finding it. I land without incident and taxi up to the hangars.

Well, first things first. I have to go to the bathroom badly, and there just happens to be a nice, dedicated one room building constructed for that purpose. There is all sorts of aviation literature in the bathroom, on tables and attached to the walls. I peruse a few magazines as I take care of my business, then I exit the facility and look for other people. Guess what....there's not a soul there. No biggie, I'm sure I have enough fuel to get home, let me go look. When I get back to my airplane, it appears that I have less than a half tank of fuel. It's difficult to tell because of the shape of the fuel tank and I haven't had any chances yet to mark the halfway point. Hmmm...what do I do now?

In this photo, I'm east of Little Texas, just north of US-80, looking towards Auburn (16 miles distant).

A view of the same area, just to the south of the previous picture. US-80 is the road you see. The large field in the distance is Society Hill. Phenix City is in the same general direction about 40 miles distant. Posted by Hello