Maule Over America: A Tale of Two Deliveries
Putting you in the pilot's seat for two ferry flights, three-quarters of the way across our nation.
You’re in the airplane, strapped in and about to start the checklist when it hits you—filling the right half of the windshield is The Hangar. The one in the famous picture. The picture showing a Maule M-4 blasting out the hangar’s open door in full and fearless flight. Right there is where the legendary B. D. Maule demonstrated that his STOL invention would take off from inside a hangar.
To make matters more interesting, you’re in a brand new, just finished with two hours of flight testing brand new, just had the final paperwork signed off 15 minutes ago brand new, Maule M-7-260. Not only that, but sitting next to you is B.D. Maule’s son Ray who is going to make sure you know what’s what before you deliver this airplane to Idaho. It’s been some years since Ray turned over the presidency of Maule Aircraft to his son Brent, and he doesn’t scramble into the cockpit as fast as he used to, but there’s probably no more experienced Maule pilot on the planet. You’re humbled and more than a little intimidated—you don’t want to step in it in the presence of one of the giants of aviation.
The Maule factory is located on a far corner of the massive ramp of what was once Spence Air Base, outside of Moultrie, Georgia. The route to the sole runway weaves for nearly a mile through a maze of telephone poles that seem horribly out of place on an airport. But this is a Maule; you and Ray don’t need no steenkin’ runway. With Ray’s concurrence you taxi a short distance to the downwind end of the ramp, finish the pretakeoff checks, turn into the wind, firewall the 260-HP Lyc, roll for a few seconds and blast upward at a deeply satisfying rate and angle.
An hour later you’re on your way northwest. You’ve learned some of the inside scoop on the M-7 from Ray—such as that it will need more aileron deflection in a crosswind than the M-4—the type you’ve flown most often. He also tells you that he prefers three-point landings in crosswinds for better control on rollout. You’ve avoided embarrassment, checked out all the systems and avionics, made some landings where the tailwheel has rolled first, topped off the fuel tanks and made one last walk around to assure everything is working well—when ferrying a new airplane, you don’t leave the factory until everything is working.
You level at 4500 feet over the varigated greens and seemingly randomly-routed roads of southwestern Georgia and settle into the routine of getting to know this new airplane well, watching the weather with a jaundiced eye and wondering if the pieces and parts have married to each other and what it will be in store for you over the next 1700 and some nautical miles.
That was three months ago and now you’re in another new M-7-260, again making a delivery to Northwest Backcountry Aircraft of Nampa, Idaho, just outside Boise. As Georgia becomes Alabama you reflect on the previous trip with its perfect weather, a maintenance delay and a day of 11.9 hours of hand flying. and of the other times you’ve ferried new airplanes, starting back when Cessna was turning them out at a rate that is hard to imagine today. You can’t help be hear the voice of the guy who briefed you before your first ever delivery: “Think of it as your airplane—the one you’d dreamed of and scrimped and saved to finally buy. Be the pickiest owner in the world when you start your walk around. If something—even cosmetic stuff—isn’t right, get it fixed at the factory before you leave. You may have to delay a day or three. I don’t want the airplane here fast, I want it here safe and in perfect condition. Follow the engine break in recommendations and fly it here at high power so the rings seat. You’ll burn a lot of fuel, but that’s how you break in an aircraft engine. It’s your airplane; you want the engine broken in right.”
You took that guidance to heart back then when you reached the front of the line of ferry pilots and the harried guy at the Cessna delivery center shoved some paperwork at you. He pointed at one quadrant of a field of tied-down airplanes, said yours was out there “somewhere” and you spent 10 minutes finding it. You still follow it when the M-7 is the only airplane to come out of the Maule factory this week so a delivery is a significant event. The company president takes you to the airplane and helps make sure everything is in order. When you take off, several people in the factory discover that they need to slip out of the factory hangars to watch and a take pictures of their creation as it departs. They’re proud of their airplanes.
The determination to treat the brand new airplane as your own came into play on that last delivery. Avoiding thunderstorms, you’d doglegged to the left of the direct route and made your first fuel stop in Ruston, Louisiana. Once back in the airplane, turning the key to the start position resulted in the prop turning a few inches, until the engine hit a compression stroke, then stopping and you hearing the click, click, click sound associated with a nearly flat battery. Three more tries elicit even less enthusiasm up front. It takes you some time to arrange for a maintenance technician to look at the airplane. In the meantime you get on the phone with the factory and the dealer to start troubleshooting the problem because batteries rarely go flat in less than an hour and you didn’t leave the master switch on. You’re going be overnight so you arrange for a hangar as you don’t want to accept any risk of hail damage to a brand new airplane during thunderstorm season. With two linemen, you push the airplane a quarter mile to the hangar.
The next day the maintenance tech, Joel Ebersole, who has dropped everything to work on the airplane, finds that the battery is in perfect shape, but there’s an issue with getting power to the starter—and it’s intermittent. He has you try starting the airplane after it has cooled off overnight because the nearly 100-degree heat of the previous day may have been a factor. Nobody’s home on the first try. You recycle the master and try again. Everything works perfectly—several times. You and Joel discuss the situation with the factory and you make the decision to press on, but only land at airports that have maintenance facilities.
As you fly northwest through perfect weather and amazed at existence of a tailwind, you reflect on a long-ago comment made to you about general aviation flying—if the weather for your trip is perfect, the airplane will break.
The landscape evolves from the lushness of Louisiana through the drier, harsher plains and irrigated fields of Oklahoma and Kansas as you monitor ground speed, fuel usage and weather. The airplane is running beautifully, so the goal is get as far as you can on this leg—you want to get through tornado alley and into the statistically better weather area of the Rockies this day if you can. You carry on to Dodge City, Kansas where you refuel and, in 103-degree heat, it takes six tries before the starter will swing the prop. You use all your skill with hot starts to keep the engine running when it fires.
The weather remains like something out of a Chamber of Commerce advertisement as you fly towards Laramie, Wyoming, doglegging this time to the right of the direct route around some very tall terrain because you want to stay down at altitudes that will allow you to run the engine at a power setting of at least 75 percent for break in. “It’s my airplane.” Eventually, you’ll have to spend some time at higher altitudes, but you want to minimize it and following the route of the Pony Express, transcontinental railroad and Lincoln Highway across much of Wyoming allows you to do so.
You stop for fuel in Rock Springs, Wyoming and look at carrying on to Nampa. It’s only 350 miles and on this day prior to the summer solstice, you’ll be able to arrive before dark. After checking weather you decide that if the engine will start, you’ll continue. To your astonishment, the starter does its thing on the first try. You juggle mixture, throttle and the boost pump for a successful hot start and taxi out. Density altitude is over 10,000 feet, so you lean the mixture carefully and resolve to be patient as even this hotrod isn’t going to be particularly lively. The takeoff goes smoothly and you head for Nampa, finally running into the requisite headwinds when westbound.
Approaching Nampa you realize that the west wind favors runway 29, but that it is oriented directly into the setting sun. That means the accumulation of bug splat and a little oil on the windshield is going to make a landing into the sun just plain dicey. Once again you consider that ferrying new airplanes isn’t about watching pretty pictures through the windshield, it’s being trusted to make decisions that will result in a successful delivery. You do your risk analysis—the wind is out of 290 degrees at five; runway 29 puts you right into the setting sun and that glare is going to be a significant problem for at least another 30 minutes; you’ve read too many accident reports in which the pilot was unable to clearly see the runway when trying to land into a setting sun and rolled the airplane into a ball plus; you’ve been hand-flying for very nearly 12 hours and fatigue is going to be a major factor in your ability to make a successful landing. With the fatigue, your mind wonders to the word itself—fatigue is not nearly enough word to describe its incredible and sneaky power, the mind-numbing, judgment-eating effects of the human body having been on full alert for hours on end. We’ve got to come up with a four-letter guttural word that gives vent to the nastiness fatigue packs and the crashes it has caused. Hey, pay attention, you’ve got to make a decision that’s going to determine if this flight’s a success not.
You decide that the safer option is to land downwind on runway 11. You’ve made downwind landings before and come to the conclusion that in the present circumstances the safest decision is to land downwind rather than to land into the sun or hold for 30 minutes—further tiring yourself out—until the sun goes down.
You announce your presence and intentions on Unicom—there’s no one else around. Turning final, you focus with all that is in you, confirming your heels are on the floor so you won’t unconsciously hit the brakes and stay precisely on speed. Any extra speed coming into the flare will not be your friend. The landing is an anti-climax. The STOL ability of the Maule allows you to touch down, fully stalled at something under 40 knots and the effective controls allow you to keep the airplane tracking straight ahead as you slow quickly to taxi speed.
Doing It Again
And now you’re here again. Over Alabama, less than an hour into the flight; pleased that the tropical storm, soon to become a hurricane, that is approaching Florida and Georgia from the south has such a deep low pressure center that it is generating southeast winds that are giving you a 10-knot shove toward your destination. You’ve settled into the routine of moving a new airplane to its new home as efficiently as possible and have checked the two fuel system components you haven’t been able to check earlier. The airplane carries its fuel in four tanks—two in each wing. The inboards feed the engine. To get at the fuel in the outboards, it has to be pumped into the inboard tanks—and it has to be done at the right time as overflowing the inboards means the extra fuel goes out the vents and is lost. Now that the inboards have burned down a bit—and it’s nice to have fuel gauges that are accurate—you activate the pumps and keep an eye on the fuel quantity in the inboards. Once you are certain the quantity in each is increasing you shut off the pumps. Now you know the system is working. You’ll start moving fuel in earnest about the time the inboards are down to half.
Flying a Maule is a full-time job. As with its STOL, backcountry-flying compatriots, the Aviat Husky, American Champion Scout and Piper Super Cub, the wing has very little dihedral and little roll stability. None of them stay where you put them for long—all flight, especially in any turbulence, means constant, small demands on the pilot to keep the airplane level. You briefly wish for an autopilot to reduce the workload, but then chastise yourself for being a wimp.
The first day goes well—you have to vary altitude from time to time for cloud clearances, but the welcomed tailwind continues through your fuel stop in West Helena, Arkansas where you see a serious crop dusting outfit and meet some delightful folks at South Delta Aviation.
You’ve brought along a Stratus ADS-B receiver that you’ve paired with ForeFlight on your iPad and occasionally marvel at the technology and reflect on deliveries you made in the 1980s of airplanes that had no radios. Then, you flew finger-on-the-map for 1000 miles and more. Today’s weather briefing had included potential convective activity over Kansas and it’s starting to show up on the iPad as you scan ahead while flying over Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. By the time you cross into Kansas, there is a northeast/southwest line of thunderstorms building just east of your hoped-for overnight stop, Hayes, Kansas. There are still a lot of breaks in the line, so you start doing what pilots do—plot and scheme to find ways around weather they are not foolish to fly through. Within moments a secondary line of boomers starts to build, east of the first. You’re passing Beaumont, Kansas with its famous in the aviation world grass strip and hotel that has two parking lots—one for airplanes and one for cars. You have to interrupt your thoughts of the times you’ve flown in there for Kansas steaks in the past and your desire to do so again right then, to concentrate on getting around the line that is building over Wichita. With only minor turns off your route, you stay well clear of the storms and the intense rain below them.
Northwest of Wichita you realize that the options open to you for dealing with the next line of weather are rapidly running out. The line is solid for at least 50 miles on either side of the direct route to Hayes and some of the cells that were red have become purple. You consider turning southwest to run for a big gap in the line and changing your destination to Dodge City, but there’s a storm building over Dodge—you don’t want to have to rely on it moving by the time you get there.
A Solid Alternate
Hutchinson, Kansas is off your right wing and wide open. You decide that after more than six hours of hand flying today, trying to thread through a building line of thunderstorms when you’ve got less than two hours of fuel aboard and there’s a great alternate right in your lap is foolish. Lined up on final, the winds ahead of the line of weather start kicking up. With all the flaps out and stalling the Maule just before touchdown, the landing and rollout are a pleasant challenge to wrap up the day’s flying. In minutes the nice people at Wells Aviation have the Maule inside a hangar, have made you a motel reservation, offered the crew car to you after you promise to be back with it first thing in the morning and told you about the steakhouse in the airport terminal. While you’re having a Kansas steak in the terminal restaurant, radar on your phone shows that the line you’d considered trying to slide through has solidified, the hole you’d hoped to use has closed and the storm over Dodge City hasn’t moved. You enjoy your steak even more as you realize you made a good move in not trying to get further—just as there’s a violent crack of thunder and the rain starts to hose against the restaurant windows.
The next morning you’re ready to go early. The weather is satisfactory VFR, but only just—and it’s forecast to improve. Preflight complete, you work through the cockpit checklist, turn on the master and listen to the gyro in the turn coordinator start to spin up. You prime the engine with the boost pump, pull the mixture to idle cut off as prescribed and turn the key to the “start” position. Nothing. Well, not quite nothing—the gyro starts to spin down. Hitting the starter has caused the electrical system to drop off line just as if you’d shut off the master switch. That’s odd.
You recycle the master; the gyro starts to spin up. Start. Dead silence except for the gyro spinning down.
Having had something similar to this with the last delivery, you try something that was suggested to you—you pull the key out, get out of the airplane and move the prop a quarter revolution. Back inside, you try again. Same result. You try three more times. Nothing. Now you do your other job as a ferry pilot—find a way to get the airplane fixed.
You go into Wells Aviation and find, to your delight, they can assign a maintenance technician to the airplane right away. Nathan Hershberger pulls the cowling and starts checking the electrical system as you call the factory and Brent Maule sets up a conference call with Sky-Tec. Within an hour the electrical system has checked out and Sky-Tec is overnighting a new starter, starter solenoid and main solenoid as the potential causes may lie in any of those components or even in a bad ground in the aircraft’s electrical system. This is a warranty matter for both Maule and Sky-Tec and they are acting in unison to get this new airplane fixed.
You now are faced with one of the different challenges of ferrying airplanes. There are times, because of weather or mechanical issues, when you can’t go anywhere. Today, you line up a motel and an inexpensive rental car and go to the Kansas Cosmosphere, one of the best space museums in the world. You spend several hours engrossed in the exhibits, then head to your motel and take care of things that you’ve been putting off because you’ve been busy flying.
By the time you arrive at Wells Aviation on Thursday morning UPS has delivered the starter and solenoids. Hershberger shows you that the starter is a larger than the starter that came with the engine. It will fit but it will require some work to get it installed, notably dropping the airbox. The work takes all morning and you supply an extra pair of hands as needed. When you’re told it will only be about another half hour, you grab a bite of lunch so you can be ready to depart.
Returning from lunch you find Hershberger has been joined by technicians Don Rogers and Dennis Door and they are confirming that the original starter works just fine. When power is applied from a battery cart, it spins enthusiastically. You’re told that the new, larger starter is not approved in the Maule paperwork, although it is in the Lycoming paperwork. They show you the very tight clearance between the starter and a fuel line—something you’re not convinced is safe.
You set up a call with Brent Maule, his team and the techs at Wells Aircraft. The decision is made to put the original starter back on and replace the master solenoid. The work goes fast and the system works perfectly. The team cowls up the airplane, you express your greatest appreciation for them dropping everything to get a stranger on his way, make sure the paperwork is complete, pay the bill and get in the airplane. And hope.
Prime. Mixture idle cutoff. Throttle open one-quarter inch. Ignition key to start. The engine fires on the second blade, you slide the mixture to rich and watch the oil pressure come up.
In minutes, you’ve gotten your taxi clearance, completed your runup and been cleared for takeoff and a turn on course. You’re aiming for Laramie, Wyoming and secretly hoping to get to Rock Springs. There’s no hope of Idaho today, it’s too late to make a fuel stop and get there before dark. You aren’t willing to extend your flying day after dark in a new airplane in the mountains—it’s a personal minimums thing.
Kids Looking Up
The thunderstorms have all moved well east of the route and the south wind means no headwind. Working your way across the plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, your 6500-foot altitude eventually means you’re only a bit over 1000 feet up as you pass over the occasional small town. Looking down at one, you see cars parked at a school and kids outside at recess. You can’t tell for sure, but think you see one or two stop running around and look up. Do they share the burning desire to fly you had at that age? Will they find a way to someday join you as one who finds it necessary to spend part of your life aloft? As the town passes astern, you send them your best wishes for the future.
Approaching Laramie, you have more than two hours of fuel on board, but the current weather information you’ve received means that as you turn the corner to a nearly straight west heading you’re going to slow to a crawl in headwinds. Some quick calculations show that even if your groundspeed drops to 100 knots, you can make Rock Springs with a half hour fuel reserve. You resolve to continue, but monitor your progress carefully. You run the fuel transfer pumps until the outboard tank indicators show they are completely empty.
Your groundspeed never drops below 106 knots as you look out at the rugged vastness that was traversed by the Pony Express, the first transcontinental railroad and highway and, despite a stiff headwind, you enjoy the groundspeed. You aren’t facing nearly the hardships endured by the pioneers who went before you across the land below.
You make Rock Springs with 45 minutes of fuel aboard and arrange for fuel and a hangar. The Maule is pushed into the last of the original United Airlines double-ended hangars remaining in the U.S. When it was new, airliners would taxi in one side of the hangar, unload and load passengers indoors, and taxi out the other side on their way. I learn that Amelia Earhart parked her autogyro in this hangar on her transcontinental flight so many years ago. The hangar was built on the original Rock Springs Airport—when the new airport was built on its present location, the hangar was moved. Sadly, it is scheduled for demolition early next year. Another icon of aviation will be gone.
Friday morning the sky is cloudless and boundless. Outside the hangar, you’ve done your careful preflight and click the master switch on. You don’t even get to try the starter—the electrical system doesn’t come on line. There’s no sound of a gyro winding up, nothing. This can’t be happening. You shut off the master and wait several seconds. On. Nothing. Off.
Maybe it is an electrical ground issue. You always leave the anti-collision lights on when you fly, that way if you shut down and forget to turn the master off, any glance back at the airplane as you walk away will tell you of your error. You wonder if the draw from the strobes is enough to stop the master relay from closing, so you shut off the strobes. You try the master. Success. Coincidence? Who knows?
You prime and twist the key to the start position. The prop whirls with authority, the engine fires and in moments it’s running smoothly and the oil pressure has stabilized.
You launch and turn for Nampa. The headwinds one expects when flying west are out in full force for the last leg, but it’s only 350 NM, you’ve got a full bag of gas and the weather is delightful. Hand flying the Maule in the wind-generated turbulence is second nature by now, so you can enjoy the stunning scenery as Wyoming flows into Idaho. You take care of the mechanics of flight, transferring fuel, staying on course, maintaining altitude and wishing you hadn’t consumed quite so much of your water bottle.
The end of the trip is in sight and there’s the usual feeling of wanting to get there combined with your innate caution and care to avoid taking a foolish shortcut or ignore something important in the desire to complete the task. You’ve got the fuel in the inboard tanks and there’s plenty of it. You’re talking with Big Sky approach and starting your letdown over Boise into Nampa when you glance down and spot a huge mall with its parking lot nearly full. You can’t help but wonder why people would willing transport themselves into such a noisy, crowded space when there is so much world outside and aloft. Mall or Maule? You’ve long ago made your decision, thank you.
You fly the pattern at Nampa deliberately. You never let your concentration wander when landing a tailwheel airplane. There’s a moderate crosswind, but you flare and nail the slip to touchdown on the tailwheel and left main simultaneously. Increasing the aileron deflection to the stop, you keep the right main in the air for a few seconds before it touches down as you track straight ahead and then slow for the taxiway turn off. In a few minutes you are at the hangar and shutting down.
You turn the airplane over to Northwest Backcountry Aircraft, arrange to give them a detailed squawk list and catch a ride to the Boise Airport. You’d made a reservation for a flight home on the last flight of the day, as you didn’t want to put pressure on yourself to make an earlier flight should there be any issue on flying the leg from Rock Springs. At the airline counter, you ask if there’s a chance to take an earlier flight. The pleasant agent tells you that you can stand by for one that’s leaving in two hours and that there’s no change fee involved. Waiting at the gate, hoping that you will get aboard the flight, you think of the conversations you had with the late Suzanne Parish, a WASP in World War II. She told you that ferry pilots had absolute priority for seats on airlines during the war. She said that sometimes VIPs were less than courteous when they were told that they were being bumped from a flight in favor of some very tired-looking young man or woman in a sloppy uniform. While you don’t have any priority with the airlines for your ferrying, you nevertheless get one of the last seats and are home at a reasonable hour.
Rick Durden holds a CFII ticket and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.