Last month I said that this month's column was going to be the third in the series on flying tailwheel airplanes. In working on it, I have spent quite a bit of time in the Pilot's Lounge here at the virtual airport, and received a lot of very good feedback on the subject. I've enjoyed every bit of it, and have, without exception, found the comments to be well-considered and thoughtful.
Everything was progressing quite well with the column until, in the midst of a late evening in the Lounge, I realized I was writing about something else entirely. I tried hard to get back to the subject of tailwheel landings, but couldn't. My mind had hit the procedure turn outbound and locked on to a subject that had been troubling me for a couple of weeks. Despite my best efforts to write about tailwheel landings, my fingers refused.
My quandary started when my airplane partner told me that he was moving to Florida. Neither of us was in a financial position to buy out the other. Suddenly, I was faced with selling my airplane (well, half mine), and, since agreeing to do so, the entire process has proven to be far more difficult than I ever imagined. I didn't realize just how difficult it would be to contemplate the concept of transferring ownership of the airplane to someone else until I found that, no matter how hard I fought, my tailwheel-landing column suddenly turned into one about facing the reality that I have to sell a good friend.
An airplane is dead metal, rubber, and glass. It doesn't breathe; it doesn't have a soul. It rises off of the ground and flies due to very elementary and absolutely predictable principles of physics and, therefore, it is just a machine and should generate no emotion on the part of whoever happens to hold the title to it at any given time.
Yes, Doctor, I do keep repeating the mantra to myself.
Good grief, I only own half of the airplane, anyway. I tell myself again and again: It is just a machine, a 1970 Piper Aztec D, with 6,575 hours in the sky since it left the Piper factory and 687 hours on the engines and propellers since they were overhauled and new blades put on the propellers.
Six thousand five hundred seventy-five hours in the sky. In the sky.
Shut up. It is a machine with King radios and a Bendix radar and Goodyear deicing boots and hot props and a hot plate and vortex generators and a stereo intercom and hot pads to keep its engines all toasty warm on cold winter days. Darn it, it cannot generate sentiment in a human being. The hot pads are to make it easier to start the engines when it's cold, that's all.
A Piper Aztec is an inanimate object that has no feelings and no personality and cannot respond to affection.
It's a lie, Doctor.
There was the evening after a day I'd spent turning up nothing but bad news in a tough case and then did the preflight in a driving rain. I was soaked by the time I crawled in the Aztec and latched the door. As I sat there taking the time I normally take to mentally shift gears before any flight, I became aware that this chubby old twin was an island of tranquility in the middle of a cold, wet, windswept ramp. The sound of the rain hammering on the fuselage was somehow muted, and the trip-hammer gusty wind was only gently rocking the airplane. It was then I distinctly heard the airplane say, "Welcome home." Suddenly the world was far less unpleasant. I didn't feel nearly as wet and cold and I knew that the flight home, despite the rain and clouds, was going to be enjoyable.
Over the years I had seen pain reflected in the eyes of pilots as they told of selling an airplane they once owned. I remember a burly, powerful forest ranger nearly breaking down as he watched the Aeronca Sedan he had owned for so many years taxi out for takeoff when the new owner picked it up. Or the anguish in the voice of a friend when he learned that an airplane he shared had been wrecked in an accident, even though no human was hurt. For several years, I had owned what I thought was the ideal four-place single of its day, a Cessna Cardinal. I had had to comfort my daughter when I sold it. In comforting her, I found that she was comforting me, because I'd grown attached to that airplane. Yet, if anything, I thought emotion only attached to little, single-engine airplanes. The Aztec is a twin. It has a total of 500 horsepower. Mine was formerly a Part 135 air-taxi airplane, impersonally flying across the landscape for hire before my friend and I bought it. It can't possibly have any sort of personality; it was born to work for a living. People don't get attached to such airplanes.
Well, Doctor, to the best of my recollection, it started out slowly. When I moved to Michigan, I found I was flying the Cardinal over or near large bodies of water frequently. Frankly, it gave me the heebie-jeebies. Going to Appleton, Wis., I'd climb to 12,000 feet to cross the lake and watch my groundspeed go to double digits while I broke out in a sweat. Intellectually, I knew that the engine didn't know where it was and that aircraft engines are very reliable. Intellectualizing didn't cut it. I have had engines stop running for one reason or another five times. I knew damn well it could happen to me. Plus, I had handled some lawsuits arising out of aircraft that had gone into one or another of the Great Lakes after a power loss. Each of those was a powerful reinforcement that it could happen to me. In winter or in IFR at night, when I often traveled, I knew my chances of survival were crummy should the engine go south. When I'd fly to Chicago, I went around the lake because the highest IFR en route altitude I could ever get was 6,000 feet. It doubled the travel time.
Luckily, I ran into a guy who was looking to sell his Cherokee 180 and move up because of a growing family. We hit it off and decided that the best approach for us would be to go in together on a twin. We figured out a budget and our needs and decided an Aztec or a Cessna 310 would fit the bill. Chuck had flown Pipers, so he looked for an Aztec. The majority of my multi-engine time was in Cessnas, so I started looking for a 310. About that time, 310 prices shot out of our price range due to large-scale purchases by mail and small-package operators. Simultaneously, Chuck found a very nicely equipped Aztec that had been used for Part 135 charter and was being sold because its engines had hit their 2,000-hour TBO. That sounded good, because we could fly the airplane for quite a while and then have the engines overhauled how and where we wanted.
We did the pre-buy inspection, liked what we saw, and before I had ever even flown an Aztec, I owned half of one.
Frankly, Doctor, it wasn't love at first flight. In fact, there's a picture of me somewhere, with a bag over my head, because I wasn't willing to admit I was an owner of something on the trailing edge of technology. I admit, the Aztec took some getting used to even though it handled as nicely as the Apache; it was different from the twins I had been flying. Yes, the systems were a couple of years behind what Cessna and Beech were building at the same time, so it took me a while to get in tune with the design philosophy of the airplane. On top of that, the thing looked like Snoopy.
It initially bothered me that, for having about the same horsepower, the Aztec wasn't as fast as a 310 or Baron. Then again, it cost a lot less to buy, it carried more, and for someone who is tall, the cabin was far more comfortable than a Baron's. I rapidly found that I could put up with a little less speed in return for more cabin room and less impact on my wallet.
During my checkout and first several hours of flight, I discovered the same things all Aztec pilots have learned over the years: Single-engine handling is not particularly demanding and, even when heavily loaded, it would climb on one engine on hot days. Being as I'd had to shut engines down in anger in the past, I figured that was a good thing. Working weight-and-balance problems, I found that an Aztec will carry a very healthy load and use some fairly short runways. It was nice to know that, when light, it would float down final at just over 80 mph, power off, and still have the energy to flare due to that thick, prehistoric, Clark Y airfoil. Loaded, it would do just fine at 86 mph but it needed some power to break the descent. I was glad to find that it was comfortable on grass strips, as I liked to go to small, fly-in breakfasts from time to time. It handled crosswinds with a degree of élan.
The first time I sought to land short by lowering the nose immediately after touchdown and standing on the brakes as I would in a 310, I was astonished to find that all I did was flat-spot the main tires. That big, fat wing was still lifting, and what weight was on the gear had transferred to the nosewheel. I rapidly found out that the correct technique was to keep back pressure on the yoke and retract the flaps so I could get on the brakes aggressively and stop in a hurry. It worked out great the day I flew into the little airport at Indianola, Iowa, so I could hook up with Paul Berge, editor of IFR magazine and one of the brightest and funniest people on the planet. On that day, I added to the good feelings that I was starting to associate with the Aztec, because we talked and laughed and did some planning, and then he and my brother, Dave, got into Dave's Husky from which Paul wanted to take air-to-air pictures of the Aztec. Doctor, a Husky only goes about 100 mph when it is being flown with the doors open and a nutty human hanging outside pointing a camera. The Aztec's best-rate-of-climb speed is 120 mph and its Vmc is 80, yet it happily puddled along at 90 mph, indicated, going smoothly where it was commanded, while Paul used me as a voice-activated autopilot to get the shot angles he wanted for his magazine. Doctor, I'm telling you, I wasn't flying the Aztec, I was just thinking about where I wanted it to go and it went.
No, Doctor, I haven't been taking the medicine.
Chuck and I flew the Aztec for several months on the high-time engines and I kept learning more about the airplane. I packed it up with family and friends and, amid great hilarity, we flew to Oshkosh and camped. The engines were throwing a bit of oil but were running strong, so we decided to watch them closely and press on. An oil-pump AD finally caused us to decide to send them out for overhaul. After we considered several shops, we sent them to Aero Power in Cincinnati. It was one of the shops I knew, and I had purchased an overhauled engine from the owner a couple of years earlier. He promised a three-week turnaround, so Chuck and I sent the engines away the first of November, figuring they'd be back around Thanksgiving.
They didn't come home for Christmas.
Or New Year's.
I started going to visit the forlorn-looking Aztec as it sat, engineless, in a hangar. It almost seemed to be asking me when it could fly again, but I didn't hear anything because I was too busy being frustrated with the overhaul shop.
We got the engines back in May. They were junk. They were not even completely assembled, yet the paperwork with them said they'd been run in a test cell for two hours each. They were so incredibly bad that we called the FAA. To our amazement and pleasure, the FAA went after the overhaul shop with both hands, and the owner that I had once counted among my friends wound up doing time in a federal prison. In the meantime, I got a second mortgage and we had the engines overhauled again. This time we got back nearly flawless engines.
When I made the first flight after everything was put back together, the Aztec seemed pretty exuberant. I wrote it off to cool weather and a light fuel-load. Later I figured out it really was happy to be back in the sky.
About then, my daughter decided that since the Aztec had two engines, and because she had liked the name of our old Cardinal (Puff ... remember the drinking game?), the Aztec would be called Huff and Puff.
Looking back from the perspective of what is obviously deep reluctance to sell this airplane, I realize that, once the engines were overhauled, my relationship with Huff and Puff began to mature, and my affection for this supposedly inanimate object deepen.
Geez, Doctor, now I'm referring to a relationship with an airplane; you might as well lock me up.
There were the afternoons picking my way through some unpleasant weather, while looking at the shades of green on the radar, when I sensed that Huff and Puff had no burning desire to get bounced around any more than I did. Even though its radar didn't have the fancy colors of newer units, it worked just fine to keep us away from the unpleasant sections of the sky. The first time I popped up through a thin layer of cloud and got a dusting of ice, I decided that the windshield hot plate was a very good thing, indeed. I liked being able to see out of the front of an airplane. I also liked that the healthy climb rate didn't sag off much until we were over 10,000 feet, which is sort of the magic altitude for getting above ice when the lake-effect is brewing around the Great Lakes. Interestingly, even though the airplane was deiced, I never felt any pull to launch on a day when I knew that I was going to have to rely on the equipment over any length of time. I think it was very content to sit in the hangar on those days. Living around the Great Lakes, I didn't begrudge the cost of keeping the boots working.
It was during some of those late nights over Lake Michigan, as I listened to the two Lycomings snoring along, that I realized that I liked Huff and Puff.
Yes, Doc, I admit it. Isn't that the first step in recovery?
When the Aztec showed me how stable it was in approach configuration, and when I had to shoot an ILS to minimums the first time, I became a believer. It was also about then that I realized I was saying thank you to it after every flight.
On those Decembers I could afford it, I would use the Aztec in Operation Good Cheer, a statewide project to fly toys to needy kids for Christmas. Filling the cabin with gift-wrapped packages added a special something to those flights, and seemed to make the Aztec perform just a little better than usual.
There was the day that Chuck and I flew our kids past the Statute of Liberty and up the Hudson to West Point. The Aztec was a platform for us to show them some of the treasures of our country in a very short time. The event was so impressive that four kids, who would normally have been expected to be completely blasé about another airplane ride, were glued to the big windows eagerly pointing out one sight or another to each other as we progressed. I found I was grateful to the airplane for what it allowed us to do. There was also the time I took relatives at a family reunion for an afternoon on the magical Tangier Island in the Chesapeake. Or the days when we would fly into Chicago for a weekend and land at the wonderfulness that is Meigs Field, especially after it was kept alive by the hard work of so many dedicated souls. There were two Fourth of July evenings on which I was flying home because I had to work the next day, and the Aztec gave me the perfect perch to watch dozens of small-town firework displays over Iowa and Illinois, a memory I'll always treasure. Or even the most recent trip to Duluth, where, on the start of the trip home on a day of nearly perfect weather, it carried me over Lake Superior to a spot where I could look back from an ideal perspective to simply drink in the sight of what is arguably the most beautiful setting for a city in this country.
Doc, it's going to be very difficult to say goodbye to that chunk of metal. Yes, I'll cooperate with the treatment program, and I will come to understand that machines are not human and do not respond to affection. I really will.
I'm still going to miss it when it's gone. I hope it goes to a good home.
See you next month.