The Pilot's Lounge #124: An Airplane With A Personality? Let's Not Be Silly

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The Pilot's Lounge

I don't know if it set a record, but it snowed here every day save one in February, so most of the action at the virtual airport was in the Pilot's Lounge, where students and experienced pilots alike colorfully expressed their preference to be flying and their frustration with the elements. I confess to being among the aggravated, as I had been trying to get my airplane over to the big airport for some avionics work, and had so far been forced to reschedule four times due to weather. I, too, had given vent to my feelings a time or two. On this afternoon, I happened to overhear a student who had recently soloed as he chatted with the person handling the scheduling book at the flight school. He was setting up a lesson for Saturday morning with his instructor and was trying to make sure that not only was his instructor available but that he could use a specific one of the trainers. The school has three trainers of the same type and roughly the same vintage, but it was interesting to hear the student express his preference: He wanted the specific one because "It likes me better than the other ones." As I walked down the hall into the Pilot's Lounge, I contemplated that comment. Over the years I have heard this refrain, or something similar, uttered by pilots of all stripes. Every pilot I know has become more or less attached to certain aircraft at one time or another. The affection may have come about for many reasons: particularly pleasing handling or performance, comfort or appearance, among others. And it is true affection, for those pilots talk about how much they like particular airplanes and have been known to lavish considerable money on them. But, even with pilots holding airplanes in high esteem, is it possible to honestly say that a particular airplane likes us? I thought of some of the corporate and airline pilots I know who, in response to any comment about an airplane liking its pilot, would make the most profane of comments about the foolishness of being liked by an inanimate object. However, when listening to them, my experience has been that the very vehemence of their remarks exposes their lack of veracity. Besides, each one of them secretly believes that he or she is the best pilot in the world and therefore an airplane would be honored to be flown by him or her, and I've seen more than one of them affectionately pat the very object of their derision when they thought no one was looking. Nevertheless, if we are to be objective, detached and truthful, I suppose we must listen to those who solemnly proclaim that it is nonsense to anthropomorphize machines built with ruthless adherence to the dictates of design drawings, approved by a soulless government agency, and operated according to the coldest of aerodynamic theories and laws, the violation of any one of which will kill us as dead as the aluminum or Sitka spruce or composite of the structure of the machine itself. Yet, I find myself convinced that those who make such statements have never truly flown an airplane, and perhaps never will. They are that sad group of aviators forever doomed to joylessly drive their aircraft through the sky. They are unable to understand the essence of what they are doing, and incapable of actually flying an aircraft. Yes, they can tell you instantly that X angle of attack combined with Y pounds of thrust at one G with the wings level will result in a climb at Z fpm, but they will never notice the sunset reflecting red off of the cu-nims out of the left cockpit window. And, when I have been in an airplane with that sort of person, driving it mercilessly through the air, I have noticed that they often can center the needles on the glideslope, but utterly lack the finesse -- and often the interest -- that would allow them to make a feather-light touchdown on the upwind wheel in a stiff crosswind and then hold it on that wheel for a while so that the airplane rolls along with the downwind and nose wheels in the air until they, too, are carefully flown onto the runway. No, they plant the airplane after more or less kicking out the crab, unable to recognize that the upwind wing needs to be lowered to maintain the track over the ground, and therefore the passengers are jerked to one side on touchdown. Drivers are incapable of virtuosity. It is limited to pilots. So, at the risk of offending the drivers, let us admit that one of the reasons that many of us fly is that airplanes often come to have personalities that must be recognized and respected if we are to carry on aviating with any panache whatsoever. And, we also have to admit that -- as climate is what one expects and weather is what one gets -- a particular type of airplane may have an overall reputation, but each airplane is an individual and its personality may or may not conform to what we have come to expect of the breed. Accordingly, it is best to be fully alert when being introduced to a new airplane, no matter how well we think we know its genealogy.

A Malevolent Sort

Piper Apache

Anytime I think of airplane personalities, I cannot help but have one particular member of the Piper Apache line immediately leap to mind. It was one in which I spent time both as a student and, later, instructing and which, I came to be convinced, spent the time it was in its hangar thinking of ways to kill me. As those who have been around them know, in general, Apaches are air-kindly airplanes, nearly without vices. They are pleasant to fly, possessed of the same fat airfoil as the J-3 Cub, a comfortably rotund cabin, instruments that were seemingly installed at random and a cruise speed that allows everyone a great deal of time to enjoy looking at items of interest on the ground. It is truly a flying sweet potato. The Apache in which I spent a few score hours, N1482P (good grief, I recall that number nearly 30 years on), rest its tortured soul, had happily flown its previous owner all the way to Point Barrow, Alaska, and back to Ann Arbor, Mich.. He sold it to some members of the flying club of which I was a member, and they leased it to the club. Following that transaction, something happened. Either "Da Pop" as we affectionately named it (before we knew any better) for its N-number, became upset that its owner had caused it to go from a fascinating life transporting an individual who pointed it toward adventurous locations to suffering at the hands of multi-engine students, or it truly had a Jekyll-Hyde personality.

A Formal Introduction

My introduction to Da Pop was more than a little unnerving. I had finally hoarded enough money and was ready to take dual in the club's twin to get my multi-engine rating. As we passed through 60 mph on my very first takeoff in my very first lesson in Da Pop, I suddenly found myself facing the right side of the runway despite attempting to put the left rudder pedal through the forward cabin bulkhead. Strangely, full left rudder was not only failing to cause the airplane to turn left, but -- to my shocked astonishment -- the airplane seemed to be swerving to the right at an ever-increasing rate. While I was busy doing my very best imitation of a completely clueless pilot, my instructor brought me back to sensibility by yelling, "Chop it!" To this day I remain grateful that one Dan Scharf was, and is, an extraordinarily gifted pilot and instructor. Yanking both throttles to idle resulted in a much quieter cabin and caused the rudder to suddenly work. Da Pop immediately turned toward where I desired it to go, albeit now well over onto the right side of the runway. Once Dan reminded me that only my side of the front office had brakes, I applied them, slowing us and allowing us to turn off onto the runup pad at the departure end of the runway. To the jaw-dropping amazement of both of us, the right engine -- which had caused all of the excitement by ceasing to function moments earlier -- was happily hushing its propeller around, a determined mimic of the engine on the other wing. After a few deep breaths, I told the Tower what had just transpired and that we would like to remain where we were for a bit to see if we could figure out what was wrong. Compounding Dan's and my confusion, holding the brakes and demanding full power from the right engine generated the appropriate snarling roar, manifold pressure and redline rpm of full power. For all of about 10 seconds. At that point the engine quit without so much as an apologetic wheeze or fart. As the propeller slowed, I pulled the throttle to idle, only to have the engine catch and run once again. A runup at 1800 rpm went without complaint; yet upon demanding full power, the engine would comply for roughly 10 seconds and then quit. We taxied back to the club and expressed our displeasure with Da Pop's behavior. Upon inspection, it was found that the cable from the right-hand fuel selector in the cockpit to the fuel selector-valve itself, out in the wing, had stretched, causing the valve to fail to move to where it should, leaving only a small opening for the fuel. It would only supply enough fuel for partial-power operations. The fuel in the carburetor bowl would allow a period of time at full power, but once it was exhausted, the big silence prevailed until the throttle was retarded and the trickle of fuel resumed. In time I was able to finish my multi-engine rating in Da Pop and, despite having to cancel a couple more lessons for mechanical problems, eventually my multi-engine instructor rating as well. When I began to teach in Da Pop, its attacks began in earnest. It got to where I would have to scrub one lesson in three or four for mechanical problems. My student and I would do a careful preflight and taxi to the runway. Everything would be in order until well into the pre-takeoff check. Then a magneto would provide an unacceptable drop, or a vacuum line to one of the instruments would become detached, or a carburetor-heat cable would pull all the way out of the quadrant, having fractured at some point in its sheath.

Landing On One Engine

Despite great care before takeoff, Da Pop still made certain I understood it would take me out if I dropped my guard in flight. As actual engine shut-downs and propeller featherings were a part of training back then, I rapidly learned to do them near an airport. It was not so much due to the fact that an Apache had to work hard to just hold altitude on one engine, but rather because Da Pop would randomly decide that the engine that had been shut down could not be restarted while in flight. The restart procedure for a shut down and feathered O-320 engine is pretty straightforward: Get it rotating with the starter (yes, I did have some students shout "Clear!" before hitting the starter -- it was funny the first time), introduce fuel and spark with the throttle just above idle and wait for it to light. Not so with Da Pop. About once a month, no combination of throttle, prop control, mixture, magneto switches, fuel-pump switch or fuel-valve positioning would induce the intentionally failed engine to run and I would get to supervise my student's for-real, single-engine approach and landing. Because an Apache isn't going to make a single-engine go-around below about 500 feet AGL once the gear and flaps are extended (and with only one hydraulic pump, we sometimes had to pump the gear and flaps down), the training exercise had been turned into a true emergency. Each time, the student handled the landing well. After turning off the runway we would always try once again to start the offending engine. Naturally, it started just fine every single time, so we could taxi in on both engines to hear our friends at the club let us know that we just didn't know how to restart an engine in flight.

Heat? You Ain't Gettin' No Heat

Piper Apache Panel

Da Pop also soon let me know it was in charge of creature comforts. In the summer, we would sometimes fly high enough to reach air cool enough that I would call upon the gasoline-fired heater residing in Da Pop's Durantesque snoz. Upon provocation, it would ignite, giving out a muffled "Poof" and warm air would curl around our ankles. But in early October, as football weather made itself known, the heater would fail. The offending component would be identified and an urgent Aircraft-On-Ground order would go out. How Da Pop knew to break the one part that could not be obtained, anywhere, that year, never failed to astonish me. Trying to keep warm, we tied shoelaces around the cuffs of our pant legs. Every lesson was a test to see how much my student and I could accomplish before one of us cried "Uncle" and we returned to the airport. Did you know that, from the cabin, the sound of the engine exhaust through the augmenter tubes of an Apache sounds like laughter when you are taxiing in and you are very, very cold? When it became clear to Da Pop that neither I nor any other instructor would take off with something not working (other than the heater) and that we were determined to be very thorough in our pretakeoff checks to find what mischief had been pulled so that we would not have to deal with it in the air, the airplane escalated the war. Collateral damage promptly occurred.

It Gets Ugly

An instructor who is now an airline captain, and who was as cautious of Da Pop as I, was preflighting the airplane with her student. She had ducked under a wing to check on a component while her student was in the cabin to use the hydraulic pump handle to pump down the flaps. The gear handle was up (I still think Da Pop did it), so when the student started to pump, with the flap handle down and the gear handle up, the hydraulic sequencing valves commanded that the gear take priority. I do not recall the nature of the design of the squat switch on the landing gear, but you can be guaranteed that it failed to work. The instructor began to hear sounds she didn't like and rolled out from under the wing just before the landing gear unlocked and Da Pop descended loudly to the hangar floor. It was about then that I moved from Ann Arbor, but I did keep in touch with those who were flying Da Pop because I had developed a morbid fascination with the bird. I learned that it was repaired, personality intact and evidently determined to do in someone, anyone. Before long it fired a cylinder out of the side of the cowling of one engine. The metal cowling peeled back, creating a very effective speed brake, and the engine seized before the propeller could be feathered. Oh, yes, Da Pop arranged for all of this to happen at night. Fortunately, the pilot knew what he was about (he, too is now an airline captain), and he experimented a bit. He quickly determined that the published best single-engine rate-of-climb speed (blue line) gave him a significant rate of descent. He found that, with the new aerodynamics, a different speed worked better. While he still could not hold altitude, the descent rate steadied at 50 fpm. With excellent ATC cooperation, he managed to find his way to a single-runway airport, arriving at some 50 feet agl. Da Pop may have played one last dirty trick, for the runway turned out to be aligned almost precisely 90 degrees to the arrival route. Attempting to maneuver for it would probably have meant sticking a wingtip into the ground or trees, with the associated unpleasant consequences. The pilot wisely chose to simply close the remaining throttle and land, gear up, on the grass, in what space was available. As there was no option to install shoulder harnesses in Apaches, the pilot and his passenger were injured when they bounced their heads off the panel as Da Pop met something more resistant than itself during the slide out. The good news is that the injuries only required a few stitches.

Beer Cans?

Due to the extensive damage to Da Pop, the insurance company declared a total loss and paid off the owners, so I assumed its days of happily scheming against its pilots were over and it would go on to cause greater damage as beer cans. To my chagrin, some years later I heard a rumor that someone had rebuilt 82P and it was flying again. For a long time, I could not bring myself to look at the FAA aircraft registry to see for sure, and I even toyed with the idea of buying one of those earth-sheltered, underground houses, in the hopes of protecting myself should Da Pop decide to seek me out with vicious intent. Recently I took a deep breath and checked the FAA registration files. There I found that someone did rebuild -- or at least, re-register -- Da Pop. However, when the webpage opens up, it does not identify the owner. Rather, it says, "ATTENTION! This aircraft's registration status may not be suitable for operation." It directs the viewer to contact the FAA Aircraft Registration Branch for further information. I cannot help but wonder what happened to Da Pop. The strange fascination continues. Despite its attempts on my -- and others' -- lives, I find that I cannot hold any malice toward it. It's a little like a two-year old who constantly misbehaves but has a way of disarming you by stopping, turning his head and giving a shy little smile. I hope it didn't become a drug hauler (good grief ... at 125 knots, who'd try it?) or get put to some other ignominious use. I would not be surprised to learn that the owner found that, while an Apache can be purchased for what amounts to spare change, the antiquated, complex, hydraulic, vacuum and electrical systems can cost a fortune to keep in working order. I suspect that it is sitting somewhere on a tiedown, tires flat, grass growing up around it, windows crazed and bird nests in many of its private parts, awaiting that day that someone will come to make it flyable once again. And it is plotting the best way to kill her. See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.