Lord Of The Bolts

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The Citabria’s annual inspection was so close to completion I became giddy with irrational exuberance that after a month of slathering new parts on the old machine, I might fly again. But not to be. The delay was two miscreant bolts that hold the tailwheel rudder horn to the rudder. The rudder horn connects the tailwheel springs to the rudder so you can steer on the ground. It’s simple. Ikea makes more complicated devices.

Here’s the layout: The horn’s vertical arm has a smaller outer diameter (OD) than the rudder’s vertical tube ID (inner diameter); ya poke one into the other and snug them in place with two AN3-13 bolts, available online for 89 cents each. Done. FAA/PMA-approved, paperwork to follow, go fly and have a nice day. And they’re not super critical bolts, either, such as the bigger ones holding the wings on. If both of these rudder horn bolts failed in flight, you wouldn’t know until landing when you’d experience crappy ground steering. Not likely and who cares? Oh, yeah, the mechanic signing off the annual who said, “These are slightly loose. Let’s replace them with over-sized bolts (1/32-inch thicker shank).”

I’m not new to airplane ownership, so I know that aviation parts are made by Black Forest elves for a limited market of airplane junkies, so we can expect to pay more for an odd-sized aircraft bolt than a for slightly used Tesla. I got it. No complaints. But, c’mon, man, I’m Jonesin’ here! Haven’t flown the Citabria in a month. All I want is to replace the two standard AN bolts with two ever-so-slightly oversized NAS ones that would take up the slack caused by the old bolts hogging out the holes in the rudder tube. And, there, the search for the unobtainable began.

When Frodo inherited a stupid magical ring, his local wizard—Gandalf-the-Mechanic—said it had to go, and he couldn’t simply toss it into any dumpster in the Shire and go about happily being a leprechaun or whatever the hell he was. No, he had to walk halfway across New Zealand, barefoot, thwarting dragons, dorks and other FAA-unapproved monsters, before disposing of the ring in Mount Doom, the Middle Earth equivalent of FAA headquarters in Oklahoma City.

My Tolkienesque quest for two bolts would seem to pale in comparison but consider the results. None of my usual suppliers—Aircraft Spruce, the Champion factory, Wal-Mart—stocked the bolts, so the search expanded to the internet, where any search turns truly fantastic. Of my several requests for prices from companies that specialize in weird-sized hardware, I received three replies, each more vexing than the previous. Most requests were met with silence when I said that I only wanted two bolts from companies that normally ship bolts on massive oceangoing vessels.

The first response, from Bolts R Us But Not 4 U in Piscataway, New Jersey, said they’d sell them for $15 each. A bit pricey but not to a seasoned aircraft owner, so I bit. “I’ll take two; hold the nuts.” It is possible to detect giggling in an otherwise all-business email from a humorless company, which replied: “MOQ 100.” I had to ask what MOQ meant and learned it means Minimum Order Quantity, apparently something everyone but me knows. You’ve done the math and see that to procure my two bolts I would pay $1500 for 100 of them, plus shipping, leaving me with 98 spares to pass along to Trick or Treaters. They did say I would get a free catalogue when I placed my order and be automatically enrolled to receive their e-newsletter, Bolt Upright.

The second bolt supplier to reply wouldn’t give me a price until I successfully answered two riddles. First, it asked, “What is your price range?” Second (you really should read these in Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni voices), “What is your fax number?” I could more easily have provided a shrubbery, because, as I explained, I’d left my fax machine beside my pager in 1992.

As for the price range, I said that I was requesting a quote, not playing The Price Is Not Right, a favorite aviation game show, where there are no winners. I gave a false fax number (Domino’s Pizza in Billings, Montana) and said that my price range was $1 and up. I mean, why would they ask my range other than to see how much they could squeeze out of a pilot desperate for a couple of fat bolts? Yeah, well, sound tactic, since I was willing to pay just about anything at this point.

The third quote came from a company with an unpronounceable name, possibly Russian, that said the bolts could be mine at $500 each … plus shipping, allow six to eight weeks; credit card number, “pozhaluysta.”* On the bright side, I could order two and not a crateful. Shipping from Vladivostok, though, killed any savings.

The quest continues. I’m likely to find the Holy Grail or Nirvana before procuring these Holy Bolts for a simple old taildragger. At the quoted prices you’d think they were for a Bonanza. I may have to face reality and resort to JB Weld and spring for a couple of 50-cent AN bolts. Although, I should probably check Ikea first.

*Meaning “please,” according to online translator … or “fool.”