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Brownian Motion: Rev 2.0 – She Flies!
From Bits & Pieces Newsletter, November Issue
By Ian Brown – Editor, Bits and Pieces, EAA 657159
It was a hard day to take when I flipped over my RV-9A while landing on a grass strip at Stanstead, Quebec (CTQ2). The flight was to inspect the runway conditions so I could inform my pilot friends about a potential target for a fly-in the following morning. Regular readers have followed the progress of the rebuild and have appreciated how many friends helped - both with physical and moral support - so I won’t mention them all again. But you know who you are, and I owe a big thanks to all of you, more than could ever be expressed.
My wife has been everything during this episode: 24-hour restaurant, sole dog walker, patient encourager, unlimited clean laundry service, willing to let house jobs slip, and head gardener, and a huge thanks are due to her for making this possible. A friend asked me if I was depressed over the need to rebuild my aircraft, and my response at that time was “No, not really, just determined to get on with it.” Nearer the ever-lengthening end of the project, I have to confess to a couple of depressing days, especially while painting. As you will see, the saga of completing the rebuild was not quite over.
The scene on September 9, 2012
After replacing the empennage, canopy, engine mount, nose gear, nose wheel, and lower rear fuselage skins and repainting and having the engine and propeller professionally inspected and rebuilt, I was ready for the last stage - reassembly at the airport.
The Anti-Splat-Aero stiffening brace, new bearing, and new balanced tire were added to rebuild confidence in the hardware, although most pilots have no trouble at all with Van’s nose gear. The excellent aircraft maintenance team of Sébastien Drolet at Aviation R. Goulet, based at my local airport, lent me a trailer and with friends I was able to move the reborn fuselage. In a separate trip, the unaffected wings the 8 kilometers or so to the airport. The rebuild cost amounted to about $10,000 and took two years to complete, with breaks for the winter season.
Installing the wing bolts is challenging on an RV. The bolts insert from the rear of the spar centre section because of lack of access straight in from the front. There is no place to turn a wrench or a socket on the nut on the lower bolts because of the position of the main gear weldments and no way to insert the bolts from the front; so the process is to install the bolts with a washer under the head of the bolt, turning the bolt with a torque wrench, and immobilizing the nuts from turning with an open-ended wrench held at an odd angle.
Once the wings were installed, the flaps were installed and connected, and the aircraft was ready to do some taxi tests. Brakes were bled and tested, tires inflated, and some trips around the tarmac showed that the engine was running well. But an oil cooler fitting had to be tightened. Missing nuts and cotter pins were identified and added fairly late in the project.
By recommendation of a good friend who recently purchased an RV-6A, I chose a local instructor willing to teach me how to fly again. Having had two years to think about what I had done wrong last time and learning to fly on Cessnas with their relatively robust landing gear, I needed to practice landing and taking off with a light touch on the front end. Unloading the nose gear requires a light feel to avoid being too nose-high on landing and even more precision on takeoff.
My instructor was a demon at simulating side winds just at that moment of touchdown. Without saying anything, he would start to push on the rudder pedals and expect me to respond to the “gusts”. As a relatively passive student, it took a while to get it and respond intuitively by pushing back, but we were starting to get there. I had requested that we focus on instrument time since I was interested on completing my over-the-top rating (VFR-OTT) to widen my scope for trips in Canada. In retrospect, it would have made sense to focus on takeoffs and landings and continue a bit longer on debugging the aircraft and the pilot, but the forecast was for a good weather spell all the way south to Florida for the coming weekend. The decision was made that the aircraft was working well and it was time to begin flight planning with my friend and co-pilot for the journey, Gaetan Gagnon. He’s a Cessna 150 pilot and was just as excited as I was to be headed into the United States for our first experience of covering a long trip over new terrain in “foreign airspace”.
Clearing customs involved ordering a decal in advance for this year and next, attaching them to the aircraft, filing an electronic advance passenger information system (eAPIS) report and calling Burlington, Vermont, customs ahead of time just to ensure that you know what time the office opens and that it is expecting you.
Having filed for arrival on Saturday morning, October 25, we left our local airport at 8 a.m., and in 30 minutes we were on the ground at KBTV, waiting for the border security agent to process two naive first-time pilots through their system. It’s unclear what the hiring parameters are for these excellent caretakers of national security, but the ability to smile is not apparently high on their list of requirements. Anyway, we were processed duly and advised that the nearest public washroom was at the FBO, no such facility being available at the customs office.
You also have to file a flight plan for a border crossing, even if it is a VFR flight over a short distance. Beware that the 800-WXBRIEF will get you a flight plan filed with the United States, and is not visible to Canadian air traffic controllers. You need to file with 866-WXBRIEF for your flight plan to be visible to Canadian air traffic control, but then you knew that, didn’t you? Maybe you don’t need me to explain how I know this, but the nice Canadian controller at Montreal Centre was happy to create a flight plan to Burlington once we were in the air.
Amateur-built aircraft must carry a special flight authorization for Canadian amateur-built aircraft operating in the United States which is available from the FAA website. As they say in the document, “possession of this letter…constitutes authorization…of a Canadian registered amateur-built aircraft…to fly in the United States.” There are a few limitations to observe, so the reader is advised to absorb the document in its entirety. If you are planning to fly anywhere near Washington, D.C., you need to know that there are basically two zones to observe: the inner one, the flight restricted zone (FRZ) being basically a no-go area without a flight plan; and the outer one, the special flight rules area (SFRA) outside of that requiring the pilot to have undergone an online training session at www.FAASafety.gov.
As of June 15, 2014, the previous online course to be able to fly in the SFRA has been replaced, and the current requirement to be able to fly within 60 nautical miles of the Washington, D.C., VOR can be found here. Several of the airports down the Shenandoah Valley to the west of Washington are inside the SFRA. Once you enroll in the new course, the first thing you will read is that pilots who have already completed the previous course do not need to take it again; but it’s not a bad idea to refresh your memory by taking the new course, and you will be given course credit for having completed the exam at the end. Then again, you could just choose to avoid the SFRA altogether, but there are some very nice airports to the west of D.C.
So now we had cleared customs, we were headed off on the long trek south with the aircraft ready for all we could throw at it, and we left Burlington. After climbing out on a heading south, I looked over my left shoulder and noticed that I had forgotten to retract the half-flaps that I used for takeoff. So I pressed the flap switch up. Nothing happened. Apparently I had not forgotten to retract the flaps. Suspecting a binding flap motor or tight fittings, I thought that a regular circuit breaker might have popped as a visual indicator that something had gone wrong.
Since I have an EXP2 bus with electronic PPTC, or polyfuse protected circuits, we elected to fly on at the maximum speed for half flaps, with the intention of checking the flaps at the next landing rather than turning back. We put down at Schenectady County Airport, KSCH, and checked the flaps. No one at the airport was willing to work on a Canadian amateur-built aircraft, but a nice young mechanic was willing to lend us a few tools. We quickly identified that the flap motor had died. After a brief attempt to bring the motor back to life, we decided to remove it and safety-wire the control bar with the flaps in the “up” position. After all, we had practiced flaps-up takeoffs and landings, and it should be no problem, right?
We continued the flight and our next stop was in Frederick, Maryland, just inside the Washington SFRA. A local flight instructor in Schenectady recommended it, having verified that the pilot-in-command had completed the online course. Since new, the altitude reporting to the AT165 transponder had had an error where the reported altitude reversed at 6,700 feet. This had not been attended to since I had avoided flying above this altitude while I sought help in figuring out what to check. Part of the rebuild process was to buzz out certain wires between the altitude encoder and the transponder.
Everything proved to be okay, but en route to Frederick we noticed the same failure. We declared to ARTCC that our altitude was being misreported, and the controller seemed okay with us verbally reporting altitude and continuing on our way without Mode C. Needless to say, having built your own panel, you are inclined to suspect that if anything is wrong, then you caused it.
Overnight at Frederick next to an Eclipse Twin Jet
After an overnight at Frederick, we pushed on south toward the Shenandoah Valley but this time elected to stay at 6,500 feet since it would be less complicated dealing with flight following. By this time we began to notice that the engine was occasionally giving us an occasional bump which we could notice through the rudder pedals, but it was otherwise running smoothly.
Okay, now the fun starts. Approaching the Shenandoah Valley from the northeast involves crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains which create a minimum en-route altitude of 4,400 feet in our planned route. As soon as we began crossing the mountains, we experienced severe turbulence. We immediately reduced our speed by 20 knots or more but still suffered an uncomfortable buffeting. Still, at more than 2,000 feet above the highest point, we were just looking forward to entering the valley and finding some quieter air.
As we cleared the last ridge, there was an almighty turbulence - a sudden loss of 1,000 feet of altitude and heavy buffeting involving holding on to anything we could find. It was all we could do to focus on regaining the altitude and finding the middle of the valley. There were no Pireps or Flightwatch indications that this was possible, and we were feeling relieved when the turbulence began to dissipate. That’s when the engine decided occasional burbling was not enough; it was time for a major burp. This could not have lasted more than a second or two, but it was enough to scare the bejesus out of both of us.
We called flight following and requested the nearest airport to put down. The controller suggested Shenandoah Regional was just ahead of us, but we could also see Bridgewater off our right wing. Tempting though it was to turn right and land at Bridgewater, within a few moments we saw Shenandoah just ahead. We elected to land there, and while we were descending, the engine started behaving a bit better.
Landing without flaps at 90 knots approach speed to keep some airspeed in reserve, we used the entire 6,000 feet of runway to come to a safe stop without stressing the tires or landing gear. We’d had quite a flight and were ready to do some in-depth review of our experiences of the last few days. It was midmorning by this time and we had a decision to make. In our talk with the chief mechanic, he felt sure that our major engine burp was probably due to sediment in the carburetor being disturbed by the turbulence, especially since it appeared to have cleared up.
We decided to fly on. Lining up on the runway, the pilot’s lack of current experience with crosswinds came to the fore, and we aborted the takeoff before seriously damaging ourselves or the aircraft but not before proving that the valley can provide some very challenging crosswinds. We taxied back to the airport and decided this was going to take more than just a strong will to get there. Several days of reflection and parts ordering were required. By midafternoon the strong crosswind changed 180 degrees and was now from the other side of the runway.
Co-pilot Gaetan’s personal reflections resulted in the very wise conclusion that since the aircraft was probably down for a few days, he might as well hop on a flight back to Montreal. He could provide moral support by text messages from there. Fortunately there was a scheduled service from KSHD to Dulles leaving around 6 p.m. A new flap motor was ordered to be delivered overnight.
By a stroke of sheer good fortune (and oh, how we needed some), the airport was the home base of Todd Ott, owner/manager of Shenandoah Avionics. He agreed to look at the altitude encoder problem with the transponder. He very quickly diagnosed that the Ameri-King encoder had never worked correctly and ordered an Ack encoder to be overnighted. He also stunned yours truly by reporting that the wiring was fine. The next day, the new flap motor and altitude encoder were installed, thanks to Todd. While reluctant to work on an amateur-built aircraft, the willing team at Classic Aviation Services was nonetheless willing to lend tools, support, and opinions of all matter of little items. The team also made its coffee pot available at no charge.
With airport shuttle services, maintenance and avionics facilities, and tiedowns available, Shenandoah just turned out to be the ideal place to stop for a couple of days to fix the identified problems. Thanks to Dean, Chris, Larry, David, and Kyle for their help and willing advice. Anyone looking for an avionics expert could do a lot worse than Todd at Shenandoah Avionics. He’s a busy guy.
Having a Dynon D10A EFIS, it was possible to check the highest g-forces which had obviously been those during the turbulence over the Blue Ridge Mountains. The EFIS showed +2.5 positive- and -1.1 negative-g versus the airframe’s designed limit of 3.8g at maximum load and airspeed. Never having done aerobatics, it will now be possible to estimate future g-forces, but lessons learned include slowing down and climbing to avoid excessive turbulence. Climbing slows the aircraft down anyway, so those two worked together on this occasion.
One interesting aside: Chris and David were rebuilding a Lockheed L10A Electra for a client and hoping that it would arrive at Oshkosh next year. They still have lots to do, including authentic birch flooring and a glass panel to install. Apparently there isn’t a single flat sheet of aluminum, so Chris’ English wheel had been getting plenty of exercise.
Newly skinned Electra L10A
The next morning came with renewed confidence that the problems had been diagnosed and fixed. The fuel system, including the carburetor bowl, had been flushed, and some tiny specks of dust particles in the fuel tanks were no longer evident. The spark plugs looked clean and the engine was running smoothly for an extended high-speed run-up. All advice indicated that the engine problems were resolved and the flaps and altitude encoder were working well. Returning to the airport for day three, I knew all that remained was to call for a weather check and plan the next day’s flights south.
After a clean start-up, tanks topped off, the aircraft rose into the less-than-ideal flying conditions, but eventually the last of the mountains had been cleared. Climbing to 8,500 feet the engine was still not perfectly happy. The occasional burbling was still evident - nothing major but enough for me to be convinced that it needed to be resolved. Selecting “nearest” on the GPS quickly identified Farmville, Virginia (KFVX), as a good place to put down.
As I taxied to a stop, two gentlemen in a pickup truck came over. This is where a pessimist would say things began to go wrong. The maintenance facility at the airport had been closed and the hangar torn down by directive of the local council. The optimist in me appreciated the fact that these two gentlemen were no less than the previous mayor of Farmville, Syd Newman, after whom the airport had been named Newman Field, and Keith George, A&P at the now-closed maintenance facility but gainfully employed at Freedom Aviation in Lynchburg.
Keith listened to the problem description, asked for a history, and suggested we begin with the most likely cause of the problems. Hearing that the fuel system had been flushed and that there was no risk of ethanol in the fuel, he decided that the first thing to do was to remove the plugs, service them, and rotate and reinstall them. After that, the plan would be to do an extended run-up at 2,000 rpm looking for uneven firing.
We removed the cowl, visually checked for any other problems such as ignition harness or visible problems with the magnetos and then removed the plugs. Keith and Syd had a spark plug cleaning/gapping/testing rig, and finding several plug gaps on the wide side, Keith explained that they were likely to cause problems at altitude when the engine was warm - exactly the symptoms the engine had demonstrated. The plugs were replaced, the run-up test was done, and the engine ran fine.
The next part of the plan was to go flying with the airport in sight. By this time, it was getting late; and seeing an increasing crosswind, discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to head for town. Teresa, the FBO attendant who had been taking excellent care of her unexpected guest, offered the courtesy car, an ex-police vehicle which still had the spot lamp to play with. The town was pretty, but the hotel was unremarkable enough not to mention it. I’ll just say it wasn’t super.
A cold front had passed through when the courtesy car was duly topped off and delivered back to the airport. After almost an hour of circuits and climbing to altitude, it seemed that the last of the problems was resolved. The engine ran smoothly, the flaps were flawless, and the altitude was reporting correctly.
Smooth air at 8,500 feet
The rest of the journey went smoothly as far as the aircraft is concerned. Flying at 8,500 feet with flight following direct to destination airport makes for less cockpit stress, especially for a solo pilot. Of course it is still necessary to plan the route and be ready to choose an alternate, but getting flight following until you have the airport in sight is very reassuring.
As a side note, you will notice the reflected pattern of the dash in the windshield in the photograph. Having selected 3M’s carbon fibre-looking vinyl to reduce the glare from the previously white painted dash, I discovered that visible texture is also problematic, even from a black surface. Evidently a smooth black unreflective surface would have been best.
After a fuel stop in Hartsville, South Carolina, the next stop was Malcom McKinnon, St. Simon’s Island, Georgia (KSSI). What a beautiful place. Blessed with two long runways, jets of all sizes, and several ramp personnel serving the clients with golf cart shuttle services, it was a pleasure to land here.
Convective weather near KSSI
The FBO had a courtesy car and even managed to find the only remaining hotel room in town on this homecoming week. A pulled pork meal at the iconic Southern Soul restaurant was delicious, and after a good night’s sleep (well, apart from the students partying until 3 a.m.), it was time to do a quick top-off to the courtesy car and go back to the airport.
Departing with the jets and helicopters but with just the “traffic” to talk to was eerily simple. Once I was established in the climb and direction, a call to Jacksonville approach had me hooked up for flight following all the way to the final destination of Venice, Florida. This was the only time I was requested to make a heading change, ten degrees left to clear Tampa, then direct to KVNC.
Last leg to Venice at 8,500 feet with sun streaming down
At both Malcom McKinnon and Venice, the approach brought convective air, with significant turbulence to avoid. At McKinnon there was humid cloud almost to the ground, but it was localized enough to fly around.
Landing at Venice brought its own share of bumps with bases at about 2,500 feet, but after experiencing the Shenandoah Valley, we’ve seen worse turbulence, eh?
Hindsight is 20-20; readers may arrive at the obvious conclusion that spending another three or four weeks in the approaching cold weather would have avoided the debugging en route and provided more time to get back into flying. That said, the aircraft is safely tied down at beautiful Venice Airport, and the next flight will be over palm trees, not the already denuded and sad-looking landscape of Quebec.
The original planned flight time was just over nine hours, but flying more slowly, multiple test flights and shorter hops resulted in a total flight time of 16 hours, almost all of it on a heading of around 205 degrees.