Aug 10, 2020 – Prelude to a Cluster Flight

August 10th was a Monday this year – my late mother’s birthday by coincidence. I’ll try to piece the story together of my trip down to Dallas this time, and what I was thinking by the time I got down there (Dallas).

Mid July: I have known I’d be flying to Dallas from Delaware on August 11th for some time now, and had planned to get all my ducks in a row well before hand. The airplane was to be packed and ready, and I’d be well rested the night before for the journey ahead. That was my plan, anyway, but it seems that I would not be in control of my schedule leading up the third big trip down and back. Roadblocks and complications were laid out before me at a pace and in a manner that became laughable.

This is a different man talking to you right now. My boys will tell you that this string of events would have made me loud and miserable 20 years ago. Age, a little wisdom maybe, and a slightly increased amount of patience helped me take everything in stride and keep on moving. I actually started shaking my head and chuckling as each new roadblock stepped in front of me. I knew I’d make safe decisions along the way, and either get there or not.

Let’s walk through it, shall we?  I flew back from Dallas after returning from the last trip on July 29th. Before I even started flying back home, I had arranged for my A&P to change my oil in preparation for the next trip, and clean up a few minor squawks. Paul was great about it, so I arranged to have my wife pick me up in Cheswold after I flew the airplane down to him. Getting my wife out of the house is no easy task. She cares for her mother in our home, and we need other people to cover for her if she leaves to help me. This necessity can be a real pain in the ass at times to contend with, but we do.

I left early so I could drop off my oxygen tanks so that they’d be filled for the trip, then I flew the airplane down to Paul’s shop in Cheswold.  I flew down there with the understanding that N833DF would be kept in the hangar until the work was done. Then I’d fly it home to avoid any exposure to weather. I’ve had weather damage before, and I don’t leave this airplane out for one day if I can avoid it.

As it turns out, Paul had another Twin Comanche in there ahead of me that he didn’t get finished. N833DF would spend the night on the ramp, but by now I was committed. Just two days prior to my leaving the airplane there, a rare tornado had touched down just a few miles east of this location. I felt good that the odds were with me that another big weather event would not happen again that soon, so I sucked it up and left the airplane there.

The very next day a completely different storm landed another tornado just 25 miles northeast of his location. Really?! That was just a warning shot, I’m sure. I made it through that storm untouched, but the pressure was building to get my airplane home and in my hangar. That pressure was all inside me, but it was there.

After the storm hit, I got a call next from Keen Gas telling me that one of my old oxygen tanks had an expired inspection. Updating that inspection would add a few days, bumping up against my planned departure. The oxygen would have to be a last minute detail, and I the pressure ticked up a bit more.

Friday, August 7th: The airplane was ready to be picked up, but now I had oxygen tanks to retrieved (if they were ready), and then would have to drive south to get my FAA Medical completed. My old AME retired, so I chose a new one down in Dover. I meet the ‘new guy’ and he tells me that he is now retiring too. F#@$ you, and good luck, is what I was thinking. I just smiled and said – ‘Naturally’. I meant it when I wished him well.

So now I’d be driving RIGHT BY MY READY AIRPLANE, but would have my wife’s car down there since mine was in my hangar up north. I can’t drive a car and fly a plane at the same time, so I started to make other arrangements and think this through. I stopped to see if all was ready, and offered to do the leak-test / run-up for Paul. That was a good idea until the clouds turned dark and it started to rain. I drove home and left my airplane there on the ramp. I did at least manage to retrieve my two oxygen tanks on the way home.

Saturday morning, August 8th: Beverly couldn’t help me get to the airplane until late in the day. I asked my son Chris to drive me, and he graciously came over and drove me down. I’d be able to get the airplane home and take my time packing it on Monday night for departure Tuesday morning. Chris and I stopped for breakfast first, and then I had him drop me at the airport. No need to stay, I said, she had new engines and fresh oil and I haven’t had an issue with her since the new engines.

I have my new 2nd class medical and my oxygen tanks. Just no airplane and I’m stuck in Cheswold with no way home. Both of the new temperature probes did get installed, and the oil is fresh.

I paid Paul and spoke with him about the work. The airplane pre-flighted good, so I jumped in and fired up. Holding short of 27, I did the run-up and found that the left electro-air ‘mag’ was not firing at all. Zip. Nada. Paul took a look, checked a few readings, and declared it good. I taxied back out and the same thing happened again. Now I was in Cheswold without a ride. My head hurt thinking about what I’d spent on this mag replacement to have it sit there dead.

Paul was convinced my old toggle switches were just that – too old to be reliable. It didn’t help much that this particular switch had been shorted when he hadn’t tightened it down all the way during the early test flights. The thin silver lining is that these issues do emphasize the modes of failure I might encounter, making me a better pilot in the end.

Paul loaned me his car and promised to come back Sunday to work on it. That’d mean I’d have to arrange a ride back then; work all day Monday; but have plenty of time to get the airplane packed and fueled for the flight Tuesday. The Sunday work turned into Monday, so I knew I’d be working all day before the flight, flying late evening for the post-maintenance, and then flying all the next day. Whatever fat I had in the schedule had evaporated.

Monday evening: I finished working an Astra initial class and drove Paul’s car back to Cheswold and my airplane. I paid Paul and another quality A&P to completely troubleshoot the Electro-Air system and ensure nothing was amiss. I’d be far away from home and didn’t want any complications I could avoid. Everything checked good, so I paid the bill and did the run-up, half expecting the mag to not light up again.

The run-up was fine, and I flew back north to my hangar. Arriving home around 8pm, I ate a late dinner, organized my gear, and called it an early night.

Tuesday morning I start out late, only to be blocked by a train at 6am. I’ve never seen a train before at this hour, and it wasn’t moving. After waiting about 5 minutes, I did a u-turn and took a longer, alternate route.

Arriving at the hangar, I pulled the airplane out and packed it up nicely. Pulling the car into the hangar, I reached for my phone to ensure I’d received the latest expected routing. My hand found no phone clip and no phone. It was sitting on my dresser at home. No question now – I’d be delayed an hour. Do I leave the airplane sitting out and the hangar door open, or do this properly and put it back in the hangar for the round trip home. Keep it professional and safe – I put the airplane back into the hangar, but left the door open. It’d be fine until I returned.

Phone in hand – I am on the return trip back to the airport. I’m not speeding and not pressuring myself to rush. That is a very good thing, because for the first time ever – there is a very large and very slow farm vehicle blocking the entire road. The car in front of me is losing his mind behind it, and decides to go for a pass on a curve. He ends up on the opposite shoulder when oncoming traffic surprises him, which is a sign for me to RELAX.  I do just that.

The car is in the hangar now and the hangar is secure. I taxi out to pick up my clearance from ground, since they are open now because I’m delayed. This will be a full route clearance, in the opposite direction I had asked for – north around DC. I launch and talk to Philly, and he sends me south. On the second vector further south I tell him that this makes no sense according to the clearance I’d received. Turns out he still had my original clearance, so he turned me back north again. Wasted fuel. Wasted time. I am surprisingly not flustered yet.

The hits just keep on coming as I realize that the 2 to 3 knot predicted headwinds are going to be 20-35 mph on the nose all day long. I’m also giving away another 8 knots to test LOP, so this is going to be a long trip. LOP is turning out the be an incredible performance booster, so I’m ok with not getting max speed today.

The last roadblock I recorded was due to equipment complications. I was in IMC diverting around storms along the route with 1″ hail. Scanning the panel I noted that the CDI had a 1/2 dot deflection with the autopilot following LNAV. That never happens unless something is not working right. It turns out that my vacuum AI (drives the autopilot) had badly precessed in flight.

Report? Don’t report? I disconnected it in flight and flew by hand for awhile to consider my options. The device righted itself, and I reengaged the autopilot with a vigilant scan for the rest of the trip. It would be overhauled either in Dallas or when I got home – depending.

Further complicating this AI issue when I got to Dallas was a new AD that had come out on the Aspen. If you have version 2.10 or 2.10.1 of the software, and you have no analog backup, you are grounded. That’d be me in this circumstance. Lucky I had version 2.9 installed.

Harrison Aviation is taking great care of me down here. I keep the airplane in a hangar and the airport is well suited for my needs.

I’ll be doing a return flight blog as a companion to the video I just completed, so you can look for that if you have read this far.

Fly safe!

Frank