Monday, April 11, 2005

Weekend plans? Up in the air!

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Spring has well and truly sprung here in the northeast - this weekend was beautiful, perfect flying weather. And fly we did...

Our Tri-Pacer had some attention from the mechanic last week, for a weak left magneto (there are two separate ignition systems on the engine, as a backup. Normally both work at the same time, but before takeoff it's standard procedure to run the engine on each side separately to test them.) The mechanical trouble turned out to be minor, and 02P was pronounced fit to fly. Still, I don't like to expose my passengers to unnecessary risk; so I decided to take the plane up for a short solo flight to make sure everything was in order.

Gail wanted to try out my old video camera anyway, so she stayed on the ramp to take pictures of me and the plane in action. The resulting video was neat to see; I've never been able to see myself fly from the outside, or my plane in the air. (Of course, when I'm out on the ramp, I always watch the other guys, and silently rate their landing technique!) The most striking thing was how slowly the plane seems to be moving on landing, and it does land slower than more modern planes. It was built in the grass-strip era, and like its ancestor the Piper Cub it can alight very sedately, at around 50 miles per hour.

The plane was running great, and apparently is making a bit more power now that the ignition is timed correctly. So I picked Gail up and we headed out for a flight around the area. We landed at the International airport in Scranton for some oil, then took off again to watch the sunset. Coming back north to Cherry Ridge, we did a touch-and-go landing back at Scranton - then, I had an opportunity to scare myself a bit. Climbing out of Scranton, I reached down to switch fuel tanks; the valve is out of sight next to my left knee, and invisible in the dark cockpit. About 30 seconds later, a most unsettling phenomenon - the engine quit! Bad news, since there's only one... Training kicked in and I pushed the nose down for best glide, and turned back to the runway, still well within gliding range behind us.

I got on the radio and called for an emergency, and was given clearance to land on any runway. I switched back to the left tank and pushed the fuel mixture to full rich, and the engine caught again; I kept on course for the airport until I was satisfied that we had power restored, and could run on either tank; apparently I had overswitched the valve in the dark, and the handle was leaning towards the "off" position. Feeling a bit foolish, I told the controller that we were OK and turned back north for home.

Gail wasn't too shaken up by the incident; unflappable as always. I'm just glad that I reacted as I was supposed to do, and that if had been a more serious problem we would have gotten down safely. And now, one more factoid is programmed into me: grab a flashlight and LOOK at the valve, when flying at night. I'm already in the good habit of only switching tanks near a runway; that little brass valve could always break or jam when you turn it. Healthy pilot paranoia...

We flew again Saturday and Sunday; I'll post separately, more flying stories to come. (They get better than this one!)