Jan 6, 2019 – RETURN TO THE SKY!!

I began the day not knowing if I’d get the airplane home today or not. There’d been so many false starts and disappointments to date, I prepared myself to come home empty handed. I knew it would eventually happen, but maybe not again today.

I surprised myself and was able to sleep until 6am. Bev and I had the rare opportunity to go out on a date last night. We had some pizza and saw the Clint Eastwood movie ‘Mule’. We’ve been protesting the movies with all the overpaid ultra-liberal assholes starring in them, but I thought I could accommodate what has to be Clint Eastwood’s last movie. They guy is older than dirt.

The plan was to drive my CRV down to Georgetown on my own and leave it there. My neighbor Tom was on standby to pick me up in Wilmington and drive me to Georgetown to get my car. He was flexible on time and I offered to do all this some time back, so I took him up on it. I’d test fly the new cylinder and repairs with Matt onboard, and then fly the airplane north to my hangar.

I arrived at the hangar around 8:45 to see the cowls still not re-installed on the right engine. My expectation that I’d be doing an extensive pre-flight and then fly around 10am was out the window. Instead I’d be putting the cowl back together, doing the pre-flight, and then going flying. Matt was doing the paperwork on my fresh annual, and would be there to back me up while I did this work.

Glad it worked out this way. It felt good for me to do this work and get to know the airplane again. I was relaxing a bit as the pieces came together, and the only concern I had was that the winds were really kicking in Georgetown. They were even worse up in Wilmington with reported METAR winds at 10 knots gusting 30 plus. The forecast call for calmer winds after 6pm, but that wouldn’t help me. I’d only be taking off if I could avoid night flying in an untested airplane.

With the cowling on the airplane, I installed the side panels, and then had to remove those to connect the cowl flap. One more visual inspection of the engine and I re-installed the side panels and moved down to the belly panels. Before I installed those I changed out the fuel drain hoses with new clear ones, and drain both mains and aux tanks into a bucket. I also used cross-feed to drain and the fuel flowed just fine with no water.

I crawled under the airplane again and installed the remaining three panels. I know I’m an amateur mechanic, but I was thrilled when the nicely documented parts bags were all empty and the number of extra parts was zero.  After 26 months of hanging around, all the parts came together like it was yesterday.

Matt hadn’t left his desk and was diligently scribbling away and signing off airworthiness directives. He had me review the logs for engine, airframe, propeller, and avionics. With those approved, I borrowed his washing equipment and we moved the airplane out onto the ramp. The airplane had 2 years of settled dirt all over it, and I was particularly worried about getting it off of the windscreens.

I spent the next hour at least soaking and washing the entire airplane. The damn thing looked NEW when I was done with it. I was totally pleased. At this point I had time to do an extensive pre-flight while I waited for Matt to finish up. I was 1:30 pm and checked weather and wondered if we’d get the test flying done in time for me to fly home. I also wondered if I should be more conservative flying in this wind, since this airplane hasn’t flown in 26 months.

Video Documentation: I thought it would be nice to have a video of the return to flight. I stuck my head in the airplane and looked in the backseat at my camera bag. Nope. I’m not going to set that up. First – I know from experience that futzing with cameras takes time and attention away from the tasks at hand. I don’t need any distractions on this flight, that has plenty of risks and challenges. Second – I don’t think I want to fully document the mistakes I’ll make should something go wrong on this flight. Let’s leave the camera in the bag and keep it simple.

I did mount my ipad mini. I would like to see how the synthetic vision works before my free 30 day trial expires. I also want to see if the mini is big enough to use in landscape split-screen mode. That much I can do without too much distraction.

Time and weather were on my mind.

Matt wrapped up his paperwork and I had a new appreciation for how much time it takes to work on an airplane after having completed the simple tasks I had today. He asked me if I’d like to go to lunch before we fly, but I declined due to the time pressure I was under. We gotta go Matt!

I had checked everything I should have several times, but still missed several critical items. I had studied and worked hard to be prepared, but the changing conditions of the day and the event muddled things up for me.

We pushed back the airplane and he went off to get his headset. I climbed in the airplane to get myself set up and found a little problem. When I reached up to set the trim, there was no handle there. Matt went in and found it, and just a few minutes later we were ready to go. I did a pre-flight on this airplane and didn’t see the missing trim handle. Mistake #1.

Now ready to go, Matt and I reviewed how best to break in the new cylinder. There’d be no extended run-up for today, particularly concerning prop feather checks. The idea was that breaking in the new cylinder took precedence over cycling the props, which Matt had just done the previous day. I’d do a magneto check and allow the prop to roll back once by 100 rpm, and that would be it.

Winds were 10 knots gusting to 27 as I recall,  out of 310 degrees. We’d use runway 28 for departure and I briefed as we taxied out. One of our phones started ringing, and it ended up being my ipad. My buddy Jim L had called just at that moment to see if I’d flown yet. Jim has a nicely equipped PA30 and now flies for SkyWest. I declined the call and we continued the taxi.

Like a bolt of lightning, it occurred to me that we hadn’t taken on more fuel! I hadn’t even checked the caps for security. What a dumb-ass!!. I told Matt of my oversight and he offered me the chance to taxi back if I thought it prudent. He had supervised fueling 15 gals per side to the mains himself, so I decided we’d go with what we had. We would not, however, fly to Wilmington and back but would instead fly up and down the coast within sight of Georgetown. Mistake #2, and that was a big one.

I briefed Matt that I’d abort on his call or mine up to Vyse of 105. My intent was to keep the gear down to that point in ground effect. He told me he’d watch for smoke and fire, and monitor the engine instruments. Runway 28 is shorter and has trees, but the winds dictated that I use it anyway for this test. This entire test flight setup would not be optimal, but the weather coming in the rest of the week could cause more delays. I was just done with delays.

Off we go. The sights and sounds were harsh compared to jets, and it took awhile to determine if they were appropriate. I did feel some vibration in the airplane, but really couldn’t tell what was normal for my piston twin, since it’s been so long. Like long flights over water – my senses were alive for anything going awry. Nothing did as yet.

Matt was watching the engine instruments, but they were busy lying to him. The right engine that we were concerned about had a very low EGT and a higher fuel flow than the left. I had recalled that fuel flow being higher for some time, and assumed it was instrumentation. With the condition of that one cylinder, we discussed of there might be something else to worry about there.

I’d been watching that phenomenon long before our recent events, and seeing the same fuel consumption either side. I discounted those high readings based on that. As for the EGT showing so low – I’ve see that before too when the probe wasn’t working right. Either I really have a problem or I don’t – and I’m thinking that I do not have an issue with the engine based on its performance. I’m really thinking a new engine monitor is warranted to start watching these more closely.

I tried various power settings to smooth out the operation, and found smooth at 23 squared. The fuel flow and EGT were more aligned there as well. I tried the autopilot and the heading mode seemed to work fine. Be gentle with changes in that mode as the airplane goes in that direction in a spirited way. I initially thought pitch trim was working, but didn’t see the trim wheel move at all and the altitude wasn’t held. Pitch trim had been one of the repairs requiring removal of the new interior and replacement of glue damaged control cable pulleys. The autopilot was NOT working because the pitch trim breaker had been pulled 2+ years ago! (Mistake #3 wouldn’t be found until I got home. I never checked the breakers during pre-flight).

We climbed to 3000′ and headed for the coast. My Garmin 530W was really sluggish in responding to inputs and took some attention. I began to wonder if I’d forgotten how to use it for a moment. Turns out that sitting for 2+ years probably allowed for some corrosion on the contacts that was clearing as the flight progressed. I pressed keys more deliberately as we continued. The new KX-155 display was working perfectly and looked great, so that was something.

We flew for about 30 minutes at a high power setting, and then headed back to Georgetown. Setting up for landing on runway 28, I couldn’t find my flap indicator!  I had Matt perform a brief search and it turned up on my lower left. It makes no sense having the indicator there, and I had apparently forgotten where it was. I made a nice touchdown in a gusty crosswind, so I haven’t forgotten everything. I could have kept the nose up just a tad longer to make it even better, but I’ll take it.

We taxied past the restaurant and headed back to the hangar where I ordered fuel topped off in the mains and aux tanks; with 4 gallons added to the nacelles. Now I get a call from my friend John D, who is a pilot I’ve flown with for years. I had to ignore his call as I supervised the fueling and watched Matt check for leaks. I look up and see John and his wife Bernadette walking down the taxiway.

My attention was sorely divided at this point. They had walked all that way down the taxiway after seeing me taxi by the restaurant. What a coincidence for them to be on their way home and to see me go by as they finished their dinner. It was good to see them, but I left them standing there as I personally closed all of the fuel caps. Matt checked the oil and i should have as well but didn’t. Instead I drove John and Bernadette back to their car, while I left mine in short term parking.

I bid them farewell and apologized for my divided attention. I was pretty maxed out at this point. Walking through the FBO, I verified they had my contact information. Out on the ramp, Joe was driving the fuel truck and asked if I needed a ride. I declined and opted to walk and try to slow my world down.

As I approached the hangar, I could see N833DF was back in the hangar and worried that this wasn’t a good sign. Before I took John and Bern back, Matt had offered to check compressions again for me. I declined that check, sensing the engine was running strong and getting a good run on the engine would tell us more. Matt had pulled the airplane in to torque the gear bolts once more before I left. All was still go!

I taxied back to Runway 28 and flew north with flight following to my hangar in Wilmington. There was significant turbulence below 3000′, with a headwind of 36 kts! I was getting used to the feel of the airplane, and getting my groove back in both radio and flying procedures. ‘N833DF, report mid-river runway 32, cleared to land runway 32’. I came over the river crossing at 1900′ and worried I’d be too high. I reduced power and it felt like I stopped forward motion and was taking an elevator smoothly down. Then I noticed 36 knots on the nose and actually had to add power to stay on glidepath. An even better gusty crosswind landing this time, and I used my airport diagram to find my hangar.

Life is good. It’s great to have my airplane home!

Fly Safe!  Frank