Sunday, September 19, 2004

The flight to Fort Deposit

The weather for the last weekend of September turns out to be just perfect. On Saturday, I take care of all the last minute planning for the 75 mile trip. This will be the longest one-way flight that I have ever taken in my MX, or any other aircraft with me at the controls for that matter. Surface winds are forcast to be 0-3 mph Sunday morning, increasing to 4-7 in early afternoon, then decreasing towards evening. Looks like I'll leave about eleven AM on Sunday morning, August 29th. I have a 2.5 gallon gas can that I'm going to strap to the rear of my seat for the trip. I'll have to stop at an airport about 30 miles away to refuel from the can to have enough fuel for the rest of the flight. Even with the extra fuel, I'll be cutting it close. I'll have to fly a straight-line path to the intermediate airport, then from there to the new hanger in Fort Deposit. I should have about a half gallon reserve when I land, which equates to less than 15 minutes from what I have observed from the new 503. Keep in mind that I only have accumulated 4 hours on this engine, so it's still pretty much unknown to me, but I don't want to pay another 100 dollars at my old hanger so I decide to go.

Sunday morning I arrive and preflight my airplane. I fill her up with fuel and strap a canvas bag (with a few items that I normally don't carry, but might need for the trip) on to the seat on top of my extra fuel. I take off right at 11:00 and head straight toward Franklin Field in Union Springs, Alabama. I climb to about 1500' MSL and I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have a 15-20MPH tailwind. My groundspeed is 55-60MPH, which helps my fuel situation. I have never flown to this airport before because the first part of the trip is very sparse on anyplace to land should anything go wrong. I'm in the air for 25 minutes trying to keep right on course. I keep a keen eye out for the airport, the GPS says it is 1.25 miles ahead. What do you know...I've flown straight to the field and the GPS takes me right over center field! Unbelievable! I love modern technology.

The winds at Franklin Field are directly across the runway at about 10MPH. I have to land, so I fly the pattern as usual and land without any problem. I taxi to a pad off the runway and kill the engine. I pour all of the 2.5 gallons from my extra can into the tank and it tops it off! Perfect! I secure all my gear and start the engine once more. I strap back into the seat and taxi out to the end of the runway I landed on. The winds have picked up a bit on the ground; no other option exists but to take off and continue my trip towards my new home. I push the throttle forward and as soon as I reach about 20MPH, the left wing and wheel come off the ground. The airplane is in a weird position, but I keep building speed as the wind pushes me toward the right edge of the runway. There are lights on this runway and I'm quickly headed toward them, but I know as soon as all the wheels are off the ground, she can be straightened out quite quickly. It doesn't happen any too quickly as I narrowly avoid a runway light that would have ruined my day. The breeze blows me around a bit, but I firmly point the nose into the wind and continue my climbout. I breathe a sigh of relief as this tricky takeoff was completed and I get back on my trip.

I keep gradually climbing as I maintain my straight-line course to Fort Deposit. For most of the trip my target altitude has been 1500' MSL. As I scan the hazy horizon, it appears that the terrain gradually rises, so I continue climbing to about 1700 feet. There was a bunch of thermal activity that day, and I found myself quickly rising on several occasions, only to force the plane back to the altitude that I had targeted. I was about 30 miles from my destination at Ft. Deposit, when a thermal gave me another 300 feet of altitude again. This time, I said to myself "I might as well take advantage of the free altitude that God has given me..." and I stopped rising at about 2000 feet MSL. I fly on a bit more, maybe two minutes, when I hear the engine "burp" a bit. I listened carefully for anything else and not hearing anything suspicious, I continued on, convincing myself that I had accidentally moved the throttle setting when resting my hand on the lever.

I'm starting to head into an area where there appears to be lots of forests and trees with no suitable landing sites. About 2 more minutes after the "burp", I'm flying along thinking that I've got about 25 more miles and I've got the trip licked! About that time, the engine RPM starts sagging and dropped from 5400 RPM to zero in about 20 seconds. Great. Time to land! There is a field to my left that I believe I can glide to. That extra altitude sure came in handy...thank you God! The approach to the field was pretty uneventful, and very quiet with no engine. I quickly look for fences, phone and power lines, and livestock. Seeing nothing but livestock, I pick my place to land, between the cows and the sheep. They seem to have formed the boundaries of a makeshift runway for me. As I turn base and final, I see that I'm a bit high. I do a few "S" turns before the chosen landing spot and then bring it in just over the trees. I touch down a bit farther into the field than I wanted, and stop about 50 feet short of a barbed wire fence that I tried very much to avoid. There was a bull about 30 feet from my left wing and I didn't know if he was going to be a problem. Some parts of my sails are red, so I'm pretty wary.

I push my ultralight over to the fence and look for some signs of people. There's a house nearby, but no cars around it. I walk up and knock on the door. Nobody home. Bummer. I call my wife on the cell phone (barely any signal) to let her know what has happened and that I'm not hurt. I don't know exactly where I am, but my GPS tells me I'm about 2 miles from a nearby major highway, so I start following the driveway out of the place. I walk about 3/4 of a mile, passing 3 closed gates. It didn't appear that I would be driving the plane out on that day. I get to a dirt road and record the mailbox information on my GPS, then start walking toward the highway. The GPS says it is still about 2 miles away, but it doesn't show the road I'm on. It's getting dark now, I've walked about 5 miles and I'm still 2 miles away from the highway!

I finally see some houses on the road and I stop at one where there appears to be a man working out in the yard. I explained my situation and he said he had seen me fly over a couple of hours ago. He offered to take me to a gas station on the major highway and I gladly accepted. If I had to walk the entire way, it appears that it would have been over 10 miles because the road twisted and turned so much!

I call my friend on the cell phone and tell him where I'm at. He arrives about an hour later (it's dark now) and we drive out to the entrance to where my ultralight is. We take some rope back into the field and tie the plane down and leave a note telling why it's there and a phone number where I can be contacted. We hike out and start to leave. About a mile down the road, we spot a driveway that is hidden back in the woods with lights way back off the road. We decide to drive up and see if anybody knows who owns the property where I landed.

Dogs bark and yelp as we drive up and a man comes out of the house and he doesn't look happy. I explain why I'm there and he lightens up a bit. Then I describe where my plane is and wouldn't you know, he knows who it belongs to and calls the person on the cell phone and lets me speak to him. We made arrangements to pick up the plane on the next weekend and we head home for the night. What an adventure. I sleep well that night!

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A new engine and a new home base

As I was accumulating minutes and hours on the 503, I was really enjoying the performance. No longer was I reluctant to get down low over fields because I knew it would take much less time to get back to cruising altitude when the fields ran out.

While dealing with the delays involved getting the 503 delivered and installed, I kept looking for a cheaper place to base my airplane. I finally found it in a city south of Montgomery, Alabama called Fort Deposit. The hangers there had gravel floors and were open on the front side, but they were only forty-five dollars per month and Fort Deposit was 17 miles closer! I just couldn't beat it. Not only that, there were two other ultralights based at Fort Deposit and I had always wanted to fly with other ultralight flyers. I had envisioned that Buck and I would fly together on weekends just like we used to fly R/C airplanes together. That was until he got into and accident and lost his nerve, and I'd been flying alone ever since.

I had just paid my rent at Little Texas when I found the hangar at Fort Deposit, so I was paying double rent for one month. Fort Deposit was 75 miles straight-line distance and I wasn't quite comfortable with the newly installed 503 to take on such a journey yet. I tried to fly every chance I could, but the weather or the wind didn't always cooperate. The end of August was approaching and I only had about 3 hours on the engine.

The third week of September, I left early from work with the intention of flying to Ft. Deposit before sunset. I got to the field and the wind was blowing, but not very hard. I pre-flighted the airplane and strapped in as normal. I took off towards the west with no surprises. As I passed 1000 feet mean sea-level (MSL as opposed to AGL, above ground level), I encountered a 20 mile-per-hour headwind. That might not sound like too much, but with a cruise speed of 38-40 MPH, it means your ground speed goes down to 18-20MPH. I flew for about 20 minutes and could still see the Little Texas airstrip at 1200' MSL altitude. Since I was flying over terrain that provided very few emergency landing strips, it was necessary to be that high, or even higher. The higher I went, the stronger the headwind became. I was looking at the big orange ball of the sun way too close to the horizon for me to be contemplating a flight of this length and I made the decision to turn around and go home. I had been in the air for 25 minutes and had only traveled 7.5 miles. As I turned toward home, the headwind became a tailwind and my groundspeed jumped to 60+ MPH. I was back home about 8 minutes! Looks like the weather for the weekend was looking good with favorable winds. I put the airplane up and reflected that it was probably a good thing that I didn't try to complete the trip that day. I really wasn't prepared like I should have been and it was more like a spur-of-the-moment type of planning. Little did I know how correct my reflections would be!

Friday, September 10, 2004


I'm grounded for the moment until the replacement engine comes. The engine is coming from Michigan. I live in Alabama. UPS takes about 4 days to ship a package between these points. The guy said he would send the replacement out on Monday. Thursday comes, no engine. Friday comes, no engine. I called the guy back asking why my engine hadn't arrived. He said he hadn't had a chance to send it out. I tell the guy that I'm really disappointed and now I'm going to miss another weekend of flying because he didn't do what he said he would do. He tells me he will make sure it gets out the following Monday.

The engine arrives on Thursday, as expected, only there's a problem. The fan shroud was damaged in shipping and I can't turn the engine over because of interference with the fan. The piece of plywood that the engine was secured to was too thin and it broke, allowing the engine to move around, thus causing the damage. I call the guy and tell him the story. He says he's going to call UPS and request an insurance claim. In the meantime he tells me to put the damaged shroud on the 377 and repackage it in the original box and UPS will pick it up. At this point I'm wondering about the integrity of this individual, because I'm pretty sure what he told me to do wasn't Kosher. I did it anyway because I didn't want any more delays in my flying season. The guy said he would send me another fan shroud for the 503.

Well, I couldn't re-use the plywood from the original package because it was broken in two pieces. I had some three-quarter inch exterior plywood laying around and I cut a piece to match the original box, and after stripping the 377 of all the parts I needed to switch, boxed it up. UPS picked it up the next day.

It just so happened that about a month earlier, I had purchased a Rotax 503 on eBay for a good price, hoping to rebuild it and put it on my MX. I took advantage of the extra parts and put the fan shroud from my junk engine on the 503 that I just received. The only problem with this is that I had a CDI (electronic) ignition that I wanted to use on this 503, but the fan shroud from my old engine was for points. I decided to use the older points ignition on this engine because this engine was originally a points engine anyway and had the cam machined on the crankshaft to actuate the points. I had never setup a points engine before and it took me about 4 hours to get it right. I had to use a dial indicator and a multimeter and I was following a technical manual step-by-step. Now that I know how to do it, I could do it in less than an hour. I did this all on Saturday, and Sunday I took it to the hangar to at least attach the engine to the airframe of my MX. It took me longer than expected because the mounting bolts for the 503 are different than the 377 and I had to modify some mounting brackets. I got the engine attached and it was getting dark, so I let the job uncompleted.

One day during the following week, I left work early and went to the hangar and finished the engine installation. I started the engine with the fuel that was from the second container that I mixed a few weeks ago. It started fine, but smoked and sputtered and quit, just like the symptoms with the 377. I drained the fuel and went to the gas station an bought some fresh fuel and mixed it properly with fresh oil. I poured a bit of this fresh fuel into the tank and after a bit of rough running to burn out what was left of the old fuel, the engine ran fine. I don't know how I did it, but apparently I had succeeded in mixing two separate five gallon containers of fuel with too much oil! This was the reason that the first engine quit and wouldn't start. Lucky for me, I found a flaw with the old engine during this process, one that would have caused a failure sooner or later, and probably while in flight. I counted my blessings and was happy that God was looking out for my well being, and thanked Him accordingly!

One small problem remained. Going from the 35 horsepower engine to the 46 horsepower engine meant that I needed to increase the pitch of my propeller to keep from over-revving the engine and to get the Cylinder Head and Exhaust Gas Temperatures correct (CHT/EGT). I had to order some more blocks to give the prop more pitch, which would delay me another week.

The new pitch blocks came and were installed on the following weekend. I tied the plane down and tested the engine with the new prop pitch. Bummer, still not enough pitch. I was done for that week and still wasn't flying.

The newest set of pitch blocks arrived the following Friday and were installed on Saturday. The engine was tested and this time, the pitch blocks were correct. The engine would spin at no more than 6250 RPM, which was perfect. I ended up with 16 degree pitch blocks. The 377 was using 12 degree pitch blocks with the same propeller! I was in for a performance upgrade for sure! I completed the rest of the adjustment and re-jetting process to bring my EGT and CHT to the proper levels, and I was ready to fly!