I was on final when the engine began to get really rough.
"Four Alpha Hotel, land long and clear the runway, no, delay; traffic," said the tower. The traffic, I knew, was two Air National Guard A-10's sitting on the taxiway just to my left, turbines spinning and ready to go. I also knew that I wasn't going to be landing long, with the engine now barely running. I would be grateful just to have the plane safely on the ground! Close to my flare, I was too busy to reply to the tower at the moment.
I pulled back the stick and landed. As the airplane slowed, I opened the throttle to taxi to the next taxiway, almost 1000 feet away. When I did, the engine died.
What a strange sensation it was, sitting in the middle of this vast runway, looking at one blade of a motionless prop, hearing nothing but a little wind whistle around the edges of the canopy.
In the silence, I tried the starter. Nothing happened, but somehow, I wasn't suprised.
I didn't know then that I was only beginning one of the greatest adventures of my life.
This story begins over four years ago, when a long wooden box was dropped in the mud beside my house one warm January afternoon. Or perhaps it began many years before that, when, as an unsuspecting child, I settled innocently into a chair with a colorful little paperback with a shark-mouthed airplane on the cover. That day, I was lead by the fighter pilot and master storyteller Robert L. Scott into a fabulous world of adventure, and excitement, of danger and of soaring beauty, of warmth and cold and thundering engines, and temporary freedom from the tyrrany of the earth which, once tasted, can never be forgotten.
I loved Bob Scott's tales of his own childhood attempts to fly, his youthful daring and good fortune in becoming a pilot, and his wonderful tales of adventures in Burma and of deadly combat in the skies of China. I wanted desperately to learn to fly. I drew airplanes in my notebook when I should have been listening to the teacher, and daydreamed constantly of building and flying little child-sized airplanes, or radio-controlled models of my own design. The occasional trip to the airport was always a stunning highlight of my young life. I built plastic models and created and flew my own little gliders of paper and cardboard. I read everything in the encyclopedia about flying over and over again, until I knew much of it by heart.
But I knew I would never have enough money to get my license. When I won a free flying lesson on the radio, I never took it, because I did not want to have to experience the pain of beginning the process, knowing I would never be able to finish it.
Years later, I finally had access to enough money to learn to fly, and a dear friend pushed me beyond my old barriers by taking me aloft in a Grumman Tiger and allowing me to fly him all around southwestern Connecticut. It was a clear November evening, and the lights of the cities which I knew so well seemed to me like thousands of tiny jewels in a vast velvet carpet.
I showed my friend Westport, and my hometown of New Haven, and took him up the Interstate to Middletown, to show him the picturesque Gothic buildings of Wesleyan College. I flew him to Hartford, and down along the Interstate past Waterbury. Whe he took over to get us home, he promptly got lost.
"I get lost all the time," he chuckled, "on the ground, too."
Things changed for me that night. If my buddy, who got lost all the time, could get his pilot's license, then maybe I could too! At least I knew I wouldn't get lost all the time.
Within five months, I had my license, and I was thirsty for adventure. At Oshkosh that summer, I had a dream ride in a P-40 just like the shark-nosed fighter on the cover of Bob Scott's book. The pilot treated me to some fabulous, lighting-quick aileron rolls and a thundering pass low over Lake Winnebago, ending in a zoom climb as the trees on a small island mushroomed in our windshield. The crackling roar and rumble of that Allison V-12 is with me still.
That night I called Connecticut from my room in Oshkosh and arranged for my first aerobatic lesson. By November I had chosen the airplane I was to build, a tiny aerobatic monoplane called a RANS S-10, and placed my order. Eight weeks later, the wing kit arrived, and the adventure had begun.
Even a small and simple airplane such as mine is not at all truly simple. I was to learn that creating one is a major project for one person. As the weeks stretched into months, my original goal of flying my airplane to Oshkosh that summer slipped by. The airplane insinuated itself into my life, gradually taking over until little else remained except my job. But the process would not be hurried, and the airplane, while providing me with great pleasure, refused to be built according to any schedule I made up. I learned many things during that long project, but the greatest were the lessons of patience and perseverance.
Another summer passed, and another. The business climate changed, and I sold my house and moved to New Hampshire. But all the while, gradually, the airplane took shape, large and small bits of aluminum and steel, plastic and fabric gradually taking form through the work of my own hands into a shape straight out of my childhood daydreams.
In the summer of `91, nearly four years after that wonderful P-40 ride, my little S-10 finally lifted off of a runway under its own power for the first time, and I was at the controls. I had tried to prepare myself well, but I was nervous. I had imagined a thousand things that could go wrong, but nothing at all happened except that I flew the plane around for a while, and then brought it in to land.
Nothing at all happened, except that the dreams of nearly forty summers had finally come to life.
As I flew off my plane's 40 hours of test time, I soon realized that I would not make it to Oshkosh that summer, either. Too many things remained to be learned, too much flying needed to be done before I and the airplane would be ready to embark on such a gigantic trip. A thousand miles is a long way to fly in most single-engined planes, but a thousand miles in a brand new, hand-built, tiny, 85-mph, 450 pound airplane, with a screaming 65 hp two-stroke engine, is too far for any sane person. Summer turned into fall and then winter as I began to get to know this little plane I had created.
During this time, I was always concious of the questionable reliability record of two-strokes. My ultralight friends, more experienced with this type of engine, advised me to plan, not "what will I do if it quits," but rather, "what will I do when it quits." I soon earned a reputation for compulsive attention to detail even among the compulsive, with my comprehensive preflights and my strict adherance to checklists.
As spring neared, I began to plan a trip to Florida for the Sun `n Fun fly-in, flying along with some friends in a Piper Tomahawk for moral and logistics support. But at the last minute, their financial situation made the trip impossible for them, and reluctantly I realized that I could still not prudently make a trip of that length alone. And so my attention turned to Ultraflight, in western New York, only 360 miles from home. A much less intimidating and more realistic goal, I thought. Such optimism, now, in hindsight, seems so terribly naive!
In the fall of `91,I moved my airplane into its own hanger at a small, picturesque grass strip called Hampton Airfield, near the seacoast of New Hampshire. Weeks of planning, flying, inspecting, and tinkering preceded my departure for the trip. Haunted by the spectre of a failed engine forcing my beautiful creation down, perhaps to be damaged or destroyed, somewhere in western Massachusetts or upstate New York, I wanted everything to be as perfect as possible. A good friend, Jeff Harris, had loaded up my engine tools and spare parts, and a tent and camping gear into a borrowed pickup truck and headed off to Ultraflight the day before. For some reason, I packed a little pocket knife into my emergency toolkit at the last minute. I was ready!
On a cloudy morning in July, I lifted off from Hampton. The weather was rather iffy that morning, with ceilings only around 2000 feet, but with clearing skys promised to the west. I stopped at Plum Island to drop off a part for some friends building a sister to my airplane, and headed down I-495 towards the Mass Pike. I'd decided to follow interstates for the trip. I felt that would give me at least a chance at a safe landing spot in the event of engine failure, most of the way along my route and particularly in the sparsely-populated areas of western New York. It would be a little longer, but hopefully safer than a direct route.
Not far down I-495, the clouds began to come down, so I dialed in the ATIS for Lawrence, just ahead. It was IFR there, with only a 400 foot ceiling. Nashua, however, was still OK, so I headed northwest over the fields to Route 3, just under clouds not much over 1000 feet. Already nervous about the trip, I tried to keep my anxiety in check as this deviation from my plans carried me off my carefully-planned route. As I flew low over the houses and buildings of Tyngsboro and south Nashua, under the instructions of the tower, I thought about my little two-stroke engine and scanned hard for good emergency landing places. There were none for what seemed like a very long time..
Shortly after I landed, Nashua went IFR, too. I called Flight Service, and they promised clearing weather soon. To the southwest, along my route, Worcester was over 3000 feet with about 8 miles visibility. While there, I met a fellow headed to New Jersey in an IFR-equipped Long-Eze. I must admit I envied him a little at that point.
As soon as the lady in the FBO told me that the tower had gone back to VFR, I headed out to my plane. Now the adventure began to unfold.
My engine is equipped with a rope starter, and, being considerably larger and more powerful than the average rope-start lawnmower, it requires a rather hefty pull to spin it fast enough to start it. I belted myself in, went through my checklist, and gave the handle my usual mighty pull. The prop stayed still, and I smacked myself in the chest.
A half hour later, I had parts scattered around the tarmac, and the rope starter in my hands. Something had caused the pawl to jam, and it was stuck to its backing plate. With a lot of careful scraping and prying, using that last-minute pocket knife I, I was able to free it up and get the starter to engage normally. I reassembled everything, packed my emergency toolkit away, and departed without difficulty.
The clouds immediately lifted as I flew towards Worcester, but as the clouds departed, the air got bumpier and bumpier. My little airplane is made for aerobatics, not cross-country flying, and it is not stable. In fact, when loaded as I had it, with baggage aboard and a pile of luggage in the passenger seat, it is considerably divergent in pitch, and slightly divergent in roll. It is a lot of work to fly when the air gets rough (about like flying a helicopter, as I was informed once by an experienced helicopter pilot), and it got quite rough that day.
I stopped for fuel in Palmer, feeling very nostalgic because it is the town where my father grew up, and after the usual barrage of questions from local pilots and airport bums, I climbed cockily into my little jewel and pulled the starter. Again I hit myself in the chest. It hurt just as much as at Nashua, but this time it was more embarassing because there were people watching. At that point, I was hoping none of them knew my father!
After another half hour, I had parts all over the tarmac and the starter in my hand again. This time, I took it completely apart and discovered that the rewind spring was coming out of the case, and causing the pawl to jam. I pushed the spring back into place, hoping that it was, as it appeared to be, a press fit, and that it would stay in. I would soon be disappointed.
While I was doing this, a fellow came up and started talking to me. I knew I didn't have much time to spare if I was going to make it all the way to western New York after all these delays, so I was rather monosyllabic in my responses until he asked,
"Would you like a spare starter? I have one at home."
Would I! We hopped in his car and drove to a beautiful lakeside home a mile or two away. We rummaged in his basement but couldn't find a rope starter. We did find an electric starter, but installing that would take more time than I had, and it was too heavy to add to my cargo. Reluctantly, I left it behind.
When I lifted off from Palmer, it was mid-afternoon, and the turbulence was worse than before. With a 25 mph headwind, my progress seemed mighty slow. As I approached Westover Air Force Base and the civilian airport at Westfield, I noticed that something was bothering me. The rear EGT was running a little higher than usual, and, now that I thought of it, seemed to have been creeping up all day. It was now running near the redline of 1200 degrees.
There was also an unpleasant rumble deep down in the engine, too, or seemed to be. I couldn't be sure, because there was always so much vibration from the engine, and the high-frequency chop of the active air seemed to exaggerate things. I thought of the 30 miles of woodland between Westfield and the next airport at Pittsfield, with nowhere to land but the busy Mass Pike, and I began to worry.
As I approached Westfield, I talked calmly enough to the tower, but inside my mind a debate was raging. Was there something wrong, or was I imagining things? Was my anxiety over the trip creating imaginary monsters in my engine, or was the engine giving me subtle clues that something was seriously wrong? If I went back to Westfield, and there was nothing wrong, I would probably give up my chance to make Ultraflight that night, and have to find a motel or someplace to stay in a faraway town where I knew no one. On the other hand, if there really was something wrong, and I carried on, I could lose the airplane.
A dozen times as I went through the Westfield ATA, I decided that I was being paranoid, and determined to carry on. Finally I announced, "Westfield tower, Four Alpha Hotel clear to the west." A minute later, as I imagined that 30 miles of Mass Pike one more time, my deterination collapsed, and I hit the mike button. "Westfield tower, Four Alpha Hotel would like to return to the airport for landing." At the same time, I rolled hard into a 180 degree turn. Moments later, as I throttled back for descent, the roughness increased dramatically. There was now no doubt that there was something very wrong with the engine.
[I never finished this story. Sorry! Maybe I will if there are enough cries of dismay.]