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What Was I Thinking?
By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102, Langley, British Columbia
February 2020 - Sometimes we do things that later, when the light of time shines on them, make us wonder what we were thinking. They seemed logical and reasonable then, but now we realize they were neither of those sensible alternatives.
A friend had purchased a completed amateur-built two-place airplane from a builder in the Midwest. This low-wing, all-wood airplane had been constructed from plans and, while it was not a show airplane, looked sound. It was powered by a 125-hp modified ground power unit (GPU) and had the basic day VFR instrumentation. I was asked to accompany him while he built up some time towards his insurance. He was a low-time pilot and wanted someone to ride along. I agreed, thinking that I'd have the opportunity to just ride around and enjoy the scenery while he built up some hours. I'm usually not that delusional.
The engine ran fine during numerous run-ups, full power checks, and mag checks. The controls functioned as designed and there was fuel in the tank; there was no apparent reason not to fly.
On the first takeoff, all was normal as we climbed to pattern height so we flew several wide circuits of the field, checking the controls and gauges, monitoring pressure and temperature, all of which were normal. During this time, we stayed within gliding distance of the runway, just in case.
As everything seemed to be working well, we set up for a touch and go on the 2000-foot paved runway. The landing was fine but the takeoff roll seemed to be taking too long. I suggested that he might consider using full throttle rather than the apparent reduced power setting. He said he was! Just to check, I grabbed his throttle hand and shoved it further into the panel while telling him to rotate as we rapidly approached what was left of the runway. As the runway ended just a few feet short of a fence and a busy intersection, we were out of options. We staggered into the air with the engine sputtering and coughing. At this point the owner yelled at me, "You take it." I said, "No it's your airplane. Turn right towards that open field and set up for a landing."
After a few more seconds' observation of his flying, my well-developed self-preservation instincts took over and I decided that perhaps I might do this better. I yelled, "I've got it," lowered the nose, and turned towards a nearby field while mashing the mic button and telling the tower that I needed the grass runway and I need it NOW. Air Cadets were using that runway for glider training that day, but by the time we had staggered through a 270-degree right turn, the tower had cleared them out of the way and we bounced safely to a stop with a now dead engine. After towing the airplane back to the hangar, we conducted a post-mortem.
The engine compartment was very hot, so we assessed that he had a problem with cooling, which might be causing a vapour lock. We decided adding a lip to the bottom of the cowling would better suck out the air.
Three or four more flights, each never leaving the circuit and flown solo by yours truly, all ended in a similar fashion, with either a sick or dead and overheated engine. This prompted the owner to add an oil cooler, a new wiring harness and spark plugs, fuel pump and temperature gauge, and overhaul the carburettor twice. After all of that, it was finally determined that the mags were the source of our problems. When they were opened up, we found the coils and condensers were cracked and broken; it was a wonder that the engine ran at all. It was now clear that the mags had been the problem from the beginning and getting them overhauled was the answer. Once that was done, I did one more test flight and then got back to completing the checkride started so long ago.
While all this was going on, my friends, all in agreement, suggested that I was not showing good judgement in continuing these flights and in the strongest possible terms recommended that I cease and desist. One paraphrased Will Rogers, telling me that while good judgement comes from experience, experience often comes from bad judgement. Too true.