Dealing with Mechanicals On-the-Road

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No aspect of airplane ownership is more exasperating than when things go wrong while far from home, as a recent coast-to-coast trip in my Cessna 310 illustrated vividly. A review of some lessons learned.

MaintenanceThis was a trip I had been anticipating eagerly all year. I'd been invited to give a seminar at the Cayman Islands' International Aviation Week gathering, and would be flying my T310R from its west coast base to Key West Florida, then joining up with The Cayman Caravan to fly over the top of Cuba and into Grand Cayman.

Whenever I make a coast-to-coast trip in the 310, I try to work as many productive stops into the itinerary as possible. This trip was no exception: I'd be spending a day in Phoenix, Arizona, for a business meeting on the way out, going to the Caymans for a week, spending a week in Boca Raton, Florida, at AVweb headquarters, and then stopping at the Cessna single-engine plant in Independence, Kansas, on the way back to California. It was an ambitious schedule, but doable...if nothing went wrong.

Trip Preparations

In anticipation of the trip (which would involve around 30 hours of flying time), I'd elected to do an earlier-than-usual oil and filter change so that no scheduled maintenance would be required during the trip. I also sent in an oil sample for SOAP analysis, and the report from Engine Oil Analysis came back clean.

Mike Busch's Cessna T310R I'd also made a point of sending my ailing Stormscope in to BFGoodrich for repair a month and a half before the trip, knowing that there were bound to be plenty of TRWs to circumnavigate in the Deep South in June. The black boxes came back about two weeks before my departure (with a $500 repair bill). Unfortunately, upon reinstalling them in the airplane and strapping on a test set, it appeared that the Stormscope computer was just as sick as when I'd sent it in. By a stroke of luck and ingenuity, Tom Rogers at Avionics West managed to come up with a loaner WX-10 computer module that I could take on the trip, while mine got shipped back to BFG with a nastygram.

Off to a Flying Start

Departure Saturday finally arrived, and I launched on-schedule from Santa Maria. My first stop was Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California, to pick up my friend Joe Godfrey who would be copilot on this trip. As a veteran of numerous solo transcontinental trips by lightplane, I can tell you that having a second pilot along makes the trip a lot more fun and a lot less exhausting. So I invited Joe along to the Caymans, and he thought about it for about four milliseconds before saying yes.

An experienced instrument pilot and owner of a beautiful Bellanca Super Viking, Joe would be accompanying me on the trip across the country, down to the Caymans and back to Florida...at which point he would be taking a commercial flight back while I did my business in Boca Raton. My return to the west coast would have to be flown solo.

The plane performed flawlessly during the hour-long hop to Palomar, and I even shot an autopilot-coupled ILS approach through the overcast. Joe was waiting for me. We loaded his luggage - even found room for his golf clubs - and launched IFR for Phoenix. I asked Joe if he'd like to take the left seat for this leg, and this time he took only two milliseconds to say yes.

The flight to Phoenix was beautiful and uneventful, and we landed at Sky Harbor Airport just in time to make our dinner date with friends. Cutter Flying Service had our rental car waiting planeside before the props came to a stop.

I decided all the omens pointed to a perfect problem-free trip to the Cayman Islands and back. But then, I was never very good at reading omens.

Eastbound...

After a very productive Sunday in Phoenix, Joe and I headed for the airport early Monday morning to launch for points east. We probably should have seen the changing of the tea leaves when we found ourselves mired in city traffic...our 15-minute drive to the airport wound up taking nearly an hour.

The Weather Channel and the DTN weather machine at Cutter seemed to agree that we'd have smooth sailing across Arizona, New Mexico, and most of Texas. Things were forecast to start getting sticky in southeast Texas and Louisiana, however.

We needed to arrive in Key West no later than early afternoon on Tuesday. So we decided to file from Phoenix to Austin, Texas (a four-hour leg), and then try (weather permitting) to fly one more short leg to some suitable R.O.N. in Louisiana, Alabama, or the Florida panhandle, thereby putting us within easy one-leg range of Key West by Monday night and letting us traverse the Florida thunderstorm belt in the early morning. It was a good plan.

The computer said we could trim nearly a half-hour off our flying time to Austin by climbing up to the Flight Levels, a prospect that excited Joe because he'd never flown that high in a piston aircraft. We filed for FL190. I decided to fill all five tanks, even though the avgas was pricey at PHX, to give us as many options as possible. This proved to be a good decision.

It was hot as Hades by the time we lifted off from PHX, tolerable by the time we climbed through ten thousand, and chilly enough by the time we reached FL190 that we had to flip on the cabin heater. The trip across AZ and NM was smooth and spectacular, and by the time we crossed over El Paso it was clear that we were making exceptionally good time. So good that we started talking about the possibility of pressing on past Austin.

Both Joe and I are lovers of Cajun food, and Joe'd received a tip that some of the best could be had at Lafayette, Louisiana. Our calculations showed that at our present rate, we should be able to make it non-stop to Lafayette with about 1+15 worth of fuel left over. We also calculated that Lafayette was easily within one-leg striking distance of Key West. An R.O.N. at Lafayette sounded like a winner, so we advised Houston Center that we were amending our destination to LFT.

As we got "east of the Pecos", activity started to kick up on our Stormscope. Flight Watch advised that there was an area of rapidly-building convective activity just northeast of Houston, but that so far it seemed to be south of our route. Scattered clouds beneath us thickened up to broken and then overcast. As we passed north of Houston, we could see what looked like monster cumulus out the right window, and decided we were glad not to be any closer to it. (Later on the TV news, we learned this particular thunderstorm dropped golfball-sized hail.)

Glitch Number One

Kiss the right vacuum pump goodbyeThe GPS said we were only a half-hour out from LFT, so we asked to start down from FL190. I flipped altitude-hold off and rolled the autopilot pitch wheel forward to 1,000 FPM down. Not long after that, Joe heard something in his headset that sounded like me saying "OH SHOOT!!!" or words to that effect.

"What's wrong?" asked Joe, frantically scanning the unfamiliar twin Cessna instrument panel.

"See that little fluorescent orange button?" I replied, pointing to the vacuum gauge. "We've lost our right vacuum pump." Visions of dollar-signs flooded my brain, making it hard to concentrate on flying the airplane.

Technically, I explained to Joe, loss of a vacuum pump might conceivably be considered a no-go item under FAR 91.213. Practically, I didn't feel great about flying to the Caymans with only one pump.

Once on the ground at Lafayette, I checked my wristwatch: 6:30 pm CDT. Too late to find any maintenance personnel here, but still business hours back on the west coast. We decided to phone Chief Aircraft in Oregon or San-Val Discount in California and see if we could get them to overnight a replacement pump to our hotel in Key West, where it'd hopefully be waiting for us when we arrived the next day. That way, we could stay on schedule for the Cayman Caravan but still have the pump fixed before our flight to the Caymans. Sounded like a plan. But we'd have to act fast.

The first order of business was to determine the correct part number of the failed vacuum pump. I was pretty sure that it was an Airborne 442-CW but what if I was wrong and it was a 441-CC?

Lesson #1: Bring your maintenance logs and your parts and service manuals along on any long trip.

Lacking any documentation, Joe and I decided to decowl the right engine on the ramp and have a quick look at the failed pump. Sure enough, the part number tag was legible, it was a 442-CW (an eight-year-old RAPCO rebuilt), and it was definitely dead: I could see the sheared coupling when Joe rotated the prop.

Next, we needed the phone number for Chief or San-Val. Surely someone at the FBO has a copy of Trade-A-Plane somewhere? Nope!

Joe tried calling directory assistance at 1-800-555-1212 to get the numbers. The operator insisted that there was no listing for Chief Aircraft in Grants Pass, Oregon! Joe did get a number for San-Val, however.

Lesson #2: Always carry a copy of Trade-A-Plane (or a little black book of key phone numbers) on any long trip.

We called San-Val. They didn't have a 442-CW pump in stock, but they did have a 400-series pump repair kit consisting of a new hub, new vanes and a new coupler for $135. Could they overnight it to Key West? Yes, if they hurried. Do it!

Satisfied that we'd done all we could do for the moment, Joe and I talked the nice folks at Paul Fournet Air Service into lending us their courtesy car for the night and giving us directions to the best Cajun restaurant in Lafayette, where we gorged ourselves with gumbo, alligator fritters, and a variety of other bayou delicacies that I can't remember how to spell, all the while being entertained with live Cajun music. It was enough to make us forget the $2.50/gallon price for 100LL!

After dinner, we checked into the Holiday Inn Express adjacent to the airport, and I fell dead asleep within minutes. Great food will do that to you.

Off To Key West...

I awoke early Tuesday morning, tuned in The Weather Channel, fired up my notebook computer, and started planning the morning's flight to Key West.

There was bad news and good news. The bad news was that Florida was awash in thunderstorms already, some of which looked like they might be too densely packed to pick through. The good news was that Louisiana was the jumping-off point for an overwater Jet Route over the Gulf of Mexico that could take us to Key West while remaining clear of most of the convective activity, and would shave 45 minutes off the flying time as a bonus. We'd even have tailwinds if we flew up high. Sounded like a plan. I filed J58 and J41 at FL190.

The flight to Key West was textbook perfect, except for that fluorescent orange ball that kept staring at me from the vacuum gauge. The engines ran smooth as silk despite the overwater routing, and the dual moving-map GPSs we were carrying made navigation a breeze. On one occasion, we asked to deviate north around a little build-up and Center approved it with the proviso that we remain within 4 NM of the J58 centerline. GPS made this easy.

The overwater route kept us relatively clear of the weather until the last 20 minutes of the flight. Key West weather was good, but there was a lot of TRW activity to the north and east. We heard many EYW-bound flights from the Florida mainland giving up and landing short of the destination. Our overwater approach didn't look too bad, and we picked our way through using the Stormscope, encountering some moderate rain during our descent from FL190 but no real turbulence.

We landed at Key West around 1:30 pm EDT, secured the aircraft, caught a shuttle bus to our hotel and checked in at the front desk. Had an overnight express package arrived for us from California? Yesssss!!!!! Don't you just love it when a plan comes together?

Vacuum Pump Surgery

I pulled out my pocket knife and cut open the little package from San-Val right on the spot. The good news was that it appeared to contain a 400-series pump repair kit, as ordered. The bad news was that the kit did not contain either an accessory pad gasket or a band gasket, so if we damaged either gasket while removing and disassembling the failed pump, the game would be lost.

Joe and I hopped a shuttle bus back to the airport with the pump kit in-hand. By now it was 3:00 pm. We decowled the right engine and surveyed the little travelling toolkit that I always carry in the left wing locker of the 310. We decided that the only critical tool we were missing was a 7/16" offset wrench, needed to loosen and tighten the four nuts that secure the vacuum pump to the engine accessory pad. Joe turned on his charm and managed to sweet-talk one of the local A&Ps into lending us a 7/16" Snap-On offset wrench for a few minutes.

Lesson #3: Always carry a good collection of tools with you, and be prepared to grovel for what you need but don't have. (I'm adding a 7/16" offset wrench to my kit.)

The vacuum and pressure hoses came off easily (remarkable after 8 years of baking) and the pump came cleanly off the accessory pad, leaving the pad gasket totally intact and undamaged on the engine. All that clean living was finally paying off!

We took the pump, the repair kit and a few tools up to a little kitchen area above the FBO and managed to remove the back cover of the pump without cutting the band gasket. The graphite hub had fractured into a half-dozen pieces, and the vanes had exploded into a couple of dozen more pieces. Classic catastrophic dry vacuum pump failure. After 8 years and nearly 1,000 hours of service, I figured that RAPCO rebuilt pump was fully depreciated.

After making careful notes of the order in which the parts came out of the pump and which direction the rotor was oriented, I dumped all the graphite fragments into the trash can and cleaned up the pump cavity as well as possible, using air and paper towels. (I didn't dare use solvent since liquids are death on dry vacuum pumps.) Joe and I then installed the new hub and vanes from the repair kit, reassembled the other pump parts, and carefully reinstalled the band gasket and back cover.

My pocket knife turned out to be the optimal tool for extracting the sheared coupler from the front of the pump. The new coupler from the repair kit then went in easily. The pump passed the rotate-by-hand test and was ready to reinstall on the engine.

Reinstallation turned out to be the most difficult part, because getting the 7/16" nuts threaded onto the attach studs in the confines of the pump pockets turns out to be tricky. After dropping several nuts and wasting a good deal of time searching for them, Joe and I improvised a nut starter by wrapping a flat screwdriver blade with duct tape (sticky side out) and managed to get all the nuts threaded in place.

The pump passed the rotate-the-prop-by-hand test, then the turn-over-the-engine-with-the-starter test. So we cowled up the right engine and I started it. Lo and behold, the repaired pump produced the requisite 5 in. hg. of vacuum on the gauge and the gyros erected. Success!

The entire remove-repair-reinstall process took only about an hour, and I was a happy camper. I'd always heard bad things about do-it-yourself vacuum pump repair kits, but decided that if the repaired pump lasted just four hours (to the Caymans and back to Florida), I'd be happy. Anything more would be gravy.

Back at the hotel in Key West, we joined our fellow Cayman Caravaners for dinner and got our briefing for the over-Cuba flight to Grand Cayman in the morning.

Hello, Havana Center...

Wednesday morning, we were back at the Key West airport for our flight to Grand Cayman. The Cayman Caravan is organized to launch groups of four aircraft every 15 minutes. Our group included a Navajo, a Commanche, an Arrow and ourselves (the lone Cessna in a Piper-dominated group). We launched on schedule at 10:00 a.m. EDT, picked up our IFR clearance from Navy Key West Departure, were handed off to Miami Center, and cleared direct TADPO, flight-planned route, maintain 12,000'.

Trimmed and leaned for cruise, autopilot engaged, altitude hold and nav tracking on, dual GPSs mapping our progress toward Cuba. Miami handed us off to Havana Center, whose English was surprisingly good. (Somehow, Joe and I were expecting the Cuban controller to sound like Ricky Ricardo saying, "Lucy, jou've got a lot of 'splainin' to do!")

Glitch Number Two

The attititude indicator developed an attitudeAbout the same time we spotted the Cuban mainland in the distance, Joe and I also noticed that we were starting to diverge from our course line on both GPS moving maps. It didn't take long to figure out what was wrong: the attitude gyro had spilled about 30 degrees from the horizontal, and the autopilot was trying to fly the tumbled gyro.

Vacuum failure? No, the vacuum gauge was still in the green and both orange buttons were pulled in, indicating that both pumps were functioning fine. And the HSI (which uses a vacuum-driven heading gyro) was also working just fine. Looked like a failed attitude gyro. Oh, great!

I disengaged the autopilot and started hand-flying the aircraft, turning back to intercept the airway. Flying over Cuba seemed like the wrong place to get too far off course. I found the tilted horizon incredibly distracting and finally covered it up with a Post-It Note.

Meantime, I started assessing the seriousness of the problem. The weather to the Caymans was supposed to be good VFR, so no problem continuing the flight. Odds were that the return trip to Key West would also be VFR. But then Joe was scheduled to jump ship at Miami and I'd be flying the rest of the way to the west coast solo. Was I prepared to tackle that without attitude indicator or autopilot? No, I didn't think so. I resolved to have the AI looked at during the week I'd be spending in Boca Raton.

I periodically peeked at the AI under the Post-It Note as the flight progressed to see how it was doing. It managed to correct from a 30º tilt to a 15º tilt but that seemed to be about the best it could manage. I covered it back up and continued to hand-fly the airplane.

After a bit less than two hours, we arrived at Grand Cayman, which miraculously popped up in the middle of the Caribbean right where the GPSs said it would be. (Lucky thing, too...if we missed it, the next land on that course was Venzuela!) As I turned short final, I noticed that the attitude indicator was finally perfectly aligned with the natural horizon. Big help!

The ensuing week in the Cayman Islands was absolutely fabulous, but that story will have to wait for another article. Suffice it to say that the malfunctioning gyro didn't come up in conversation even once during Caymans week.

Welcome to Florida...

The week passed much too quickly, and Tuesday morning we were out at the airplane ready to depart for the mainland. Our plan was to fly back to Key West to clear U.S. customs and return our rented raft and lifejackets, then fly to Miami International to drop Joe at his airline connection, and finally hop over to Boca Raton where I'd be spending the next week on business.

It was Joe's leg to fly, with me handling nav and comm duties. On takeoff from Grand Cayman, the attitude indicator initially appeared to be malfunctioning (no surprise there), but shortly thereafter it erected properly and seemed to be behaving. Joe elected to hand-fly the airplane anyway, rather than trust the suspect gyro by engaging the autopilot. We left the instrument uncovered and it continued to stay aligned.

We breezed through customs at Key West (they seem to like the Caravan folks) and launched for Miami with me in the left seat. Again, the attitude gyro seemed to be well-behaved (and our field-repaired vacuum pump was still hanging in there, too), so I tried the autopilot and it behaved perfectly as well.

We landed at MIA and Joe sped off in the Signature shuttle van to catch his airline flight. I reluctantly purchased 40 gallons of $3.00/gallon avgas rather than pay Signature's $35.00 ramp fee (grrr!), and departed with a VFR clearance moments before a big thunderstorm reached the airport. Welcome to Florida! Fifteen minutes later, I was on the ground at Boca Raton. Once again, the attitude gyro appeared to work flawlessly.

Fix It...or Ignore It?

That evening, I debated with myself whether or not to pull the gyro and send it to the instrument shop. It had worked fine from Grand Cayman to Key West to Miami to Boca Raton. But somehow I didn't trust it anymore, and Murphy's Law dictated that the next time it failed would be at the most inopportune moment possible. In the end, I decided to yank the instrument, which I did the next morning (without even having to borrow any tools) and couriered it off to the J. D. Chapdelaine instrument shop at Fort Lauderdale Executive.

That turned out to be a good decision. JDC's technician reported that he couldn't get the AI to spin up at all when he applied 2.5" of vacuum, and that it would just barely spin with a full 5" of vacuum. The gyro spindle bearings were definitely in very bad shape. I thought back and realized that this instrument had last been overhauled about 8 years ago, just prior to the time the right vacuum pump was last replaced! So those spindle bearings were fully depreciated, too.

Lesson #4: When making a fix-or-ignore decision on-the-road, go with your gut feelings. They're usually right.

The shop had a yellow-tagged AI of the same kind on the shelf for $360 exchange, and I said I'd take it. It arrived by courier and I installed it in the airplane Wednesday over lunchtime.

Glitch Number Three

Thursday I was scheduled to attend a tradeshow at Cocoa Beach with AVweb publisher Carl Marbach and another associate, followed by a VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Flight Center at Cape Canaveral. This involved a one-hour flight from Boca Raton to Merrit Island, a perfect shakedown cruise for the new attitude gyro.

The flight to Merrit Island was lovely and the AI and autopilot behaved perfectly. But a new glitch appeared: the right EGT needle barely registered on takeoff, although the engine was obviously running just fine. For the rest of the flight, the right EGT was completely dead.

Three equipment failures in one trip! This set a new all-time record for my 310, which had always been incredibly reliable. I decided that my normally-hangared airplane was trying to get back at me for leaving it outside in the humidity and rain. I also decided that the EGT gauge wasn't a serious enough problem to worry about, and decided to let it go until I got back home to California.

Lesson #5: Don't sweat the small stuff.

By the time we were done with our Cape Canaveral tour, there was a monster thunderstorm and spectacular lightning show over the Cape. We called a cab to take us back to Merrit Island airport, not knowing whether or not we'd be able to get out. Surprisingly, when we arrived at the airport, the weather was sunny...but with big storms visible in several directions. A look at the DTN weather machine made it clear that the weather was in a line along the east coast of Florida, and that we ought to have smooth sailing back to Boca Raton by heading inland a bit.

As we headed out to the airplane, Carl (who is a seasoned Florida pilot) said to me, "I think we better leave now!" I nodded and started my walk-around. "I don't think you understood what I meant," Carl said with a parental scowl. "We better leave now! No pre-flight, no run-up. NOW!"

We jumped in and fired up. As we were about to taxi onto the runway, unicom called to advise that Patrick AFB (8 miles southeast of Merrit Island) had just evacuated the control tower due to 70-knot winds! Welcome to Florida!

It still looked fine at Merrit Island, so we took off and turned east toward the blue skies. ATC gave us our IFR clearance aloft and was extremely cooperative with our requested weather deviations. The flight back to Boca Raton was uneventful, except that the right EGT was still DOA.

And Yet Another Glitch

My week in Boca Raton came and went, and Tuesday morning I was out at the airport to launch for Independence, Kansas. I had managed to schedule a visit to the Cessna single-engine facility and a test-flight of the new 1997 Cessna 182S Skylane that afternoon.

The runup at Boca Raton was fine, the vacuum pump was still working (amazing!), the attitude indicator erected properly, and all seemed right with the world. Until about 30 seconds after takeoff.

It was then that I engaged the autopilot in preparation for picking up my IFR clearance from Palm Beach Departure. Or at least I tried to engage the autopilot. But it wouldn't engage! I checked the breakers but none were popped. I checked the electric trim and it was working. But I couldn't get the autopilot to come on-line. No sign of life whatsoever.

Lesson #6: If you plan on using the autopilot, pre-flight it on the ground, dummy!

After a few moments of denial, I quickly decided that the autopilot was a no-go item for a coast-to-coast solo flight. Hand flying might have been fine for Charles Lindbergh, but not for me. Call me a wuss, but I know my limits. I turned around and landed at Boca. Hobbs meter time for the flight: 0.1 hour.

I taxied over to the radio shop at Boca Raton and explained my predicament to the shop manager. After verifying that the autopilot indeed would not engage and that there was no obvious cause, he suggested that I fly the airplane to Fort Lauderdale Executive, where the avionics shop at Banyan Air Service had "the best Cessna 400B autopilot man in all of South Florida." Sounded like a plan to me.

Fifteen minutes later, I touched down at FXE and got progressive taxi instructions to Banyan's avionics shop. They were expecting me, and I was quickly introduced to their autopilot tech, Sam Amberson, who (I learned) had been named "Avionics Technician of the Year" by the FAA in 1996.

Sam quickly pulled the autopilot computer and control head from the airplane and set them up on the bench. They worked fine. That meant that the problem was in the airplane somewhere. My heart sank. This could turn out to be a troubleshooting nightmare. It was now noon, so I headed off to the airport greasy spoon while Sam had his brown-bag lunch. By the time I got back from lunch, Sam had the airplane in the hangar, the black boxes back in the airplane, and schematics spread out on the wing. At first, he suspected a problem with the yoke disconnect switch, but that was quickly eliminated. Next, he suspected a problem with the attitude gyro pickoff (I had mentioned that the gyro had been changed out two hours earlier, but that the autopilot had worked fine during the shakedown flight).

Sam pulled the glareshield and checked the autopilot-to-gyro cable. Suddenly, the autopilot started working. Sam determined that by wiggling the cable, he could make the problem appear and disappear almost at will. After some further pushing and prodding, Sam concluded that the connector on the autopilot-to-AI cable was intermittent. He had another connector in stock (a higher-quality one than the one in the airplane) and, using a propane-fired soldering pencil, he installed the new connector and functionally checked the autopilot. It worked solidly now, despite all the cable- and connector-wiggling Sam could manage. Sam pronounced the system healthy and buttoned up the glareshield.

The tab: about $150, including parts, labor and tax. A bargain, I thought. A less-experienced technician might have taken days to find and fix this intermittent. Sam's the man!

Lesson #7: Sometimes, you get lucky.

By now, it was 3:00 pm EDT and convective activity was starting to explode throughout the southeastern states. It didn't take me long to conclude that the better part of valor would be to stay overnight at FXE and launch for Kansas first thing in the morning. Banyan got me a crew rate at the Sheraton and I took a courtesy van over and checked in. I phoned my contact at Cessna to tell him I'd be delayed. "General aviation, you know," I joked.

Four Glitches Are Enough!

I'm happy to report that the autopilot glitch was the last...for this trip, anyway. I made it non-stop from Fort Lauderdale to Independence in 5+20 without further incident. And I flew the new Skylane...boy, is it ever quiet! The next day, I hopped over to Wichita for a short meeting, then flew 2+45 to Albuquerque for fuel and lunch, and finally 3+45 to Santa Maria, California...home at last! The right EGT remained dead...I'll deal with it this week...but the vacuum pump hung in there (knock me over with a feather!) and everything else worked fine.

Thanks for riding along. Those long-distance solo flights get lonely.