You Can’t Get There From Here: Aviation Version

“Where’s the access for the oil drain?”

“Down there. You have to reach past the engine mount, around the back of the supercharger, don’t hit the whatsis, and don’t forget to cut off the safety wire before you try to remove the drain plug. Hanging upside-down helps.”

Except that it’s hard to remember which is right and left when you are half-inverted on the work platform, trying to get to everything while the oil is still warm enough to drain quickly. I really, really disliked the designer who put that thing there.

Oh, and you have to replace the safety wire, which has to go around the plug in a certain way, and be twisted in a certain direction. If you don’t twist the wire tail and bend it so that the end is smooth and blunt, the Crew Chief or next person to work in that area will have WORDS with you. Trusssssst me on this.

I think every airplane and almost every other type of vehicle has one of those things – something you can’t get to easily, or quickly, or that is in a compartment so tightly crammed with expensive and fragile stuff that you are afraid to breathe and more afraid of dropping a hand tool or the gizmo you are trying to troubleshoot/repair/replace. Hellholes are found on all large aircraft, and someone always has to put the battery waaaaaay back in the tail-cone for weight-and-balance purposes. Unless the battery is just in a place that requires removing part of the interior of the plane to get to. Not an easy part, either.

Merlin engines and other in-line designs are infamous, because the designers made as tight a package as possible in order to squeeze everything into a very streamlined design. Trying to get to the starter, or oil drain, or certain other accessories takes slender hands, long arms, and bones like Plastic Man or Gumby. I once looked at a Japanese engine that appeared to have been draped with spaghetti or linguini. All the wires for the spark plugs, all running down the outside of the engine, and getting in the way of, well, finding anything else.

Electronics bays are notorious. Many jets and some turboprops put the guts of the electronic stuff, back in the pre-solid-state days, or when the plane has a radar unit on-board, up front in the nose near the oxygen tanks*. You cannot get to this bay from the cockpit. You have a separate hatch that opens into a dark, cramped, and either hotter than the blazes or colder than a well digger’s hip pocket space that is about as wide as most men’s shoulders. OK, not that cozy, but it feels like when you are trying to do any work in there that requires more than “remove box, slide in new box, close hatch.” Granted, airline-sized planes do have more room, but it’s still dark, and too warm or too cold, and when you drop things, they fall farther. I can pretty much guarantee that the more expensive the [thing], the louder it sounds when it hits the cement, no matter the size of the thing or how many steps on the ladder it hits on the way down.

I have had the privilege of squeezing myself into electronics bays, tail cones, wing roots, and aft fuselages of a number of aircraft. It was fun, and were I still that limber, I’d do it again. But I’d wear much better ear protection.

*In some biz-jets, the emergency oxygen bottles are in the nose. As you pre-flight the plane, you check the bottles, open the valves, and remove a long red “remove before flight” streamer that flaps outside the O2 compartment like a tongue. If the plane is taxiing “with its tongue out,” you’d better park, shut down, get out, and turn on your emergency O2 system. There’s some suspicion about a certain biz-jet crash and the bottles getting overlooked during preflight. Nothing is proven, though, but the super-long crimson streamer stems from that time.

Airplanes and Boom-sticks

They both have a set ratio of use to cleaning. In fact, I’m starting to think that two handgun makers in particular are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Beechcraft, because the handguns are just like a C-90 King Air. Two flights and then we washed the plane. Two range trips and then I clean the handguns.

Airplanes and firearms also lead to getting accessories. You know, headsets, knee-boards, cleaning supplies, manuals and guides, rule-books, bags to carry all of the above. A second headset because the first one wasn’t quite right, or you have a passenger/family member/friend who needs to have ear protection.

Airplanes and firearms eat a lot. Avgas and jet-A are, oh, about five to ten times as expensive per gallon (or pound or kilo, depending on how your plane is fueled) as car gas. Ammunition prices are starting to descend from “will trade fancy house in high-demand gated neighborhood for 100 rounds.” However, they are not a penny a round, like some calibers used to be. DadRed comments on this. Frequently. Especially after the Brown Truck of Happiness leaves a small, heavy box with a certain hazard marking on it.

Planes and firearms are both finicky about what you can use to clean them. I’m grateful for modern stuff, because I remember reading the Little House books and how Pa Ingalls poured boiling water down the barrel of his rifle to clean it. I’d just as soon not do that with a handgun! However, plane-washing and gun-cleaning are both messy, have to be done outdoors in some cases, and leave distinctive scents surrounding the individual doing the work. Some things [Simple Green among other products] are absolutely verboten for aircraft. So you end up with hot water (one hopes), a bucket of smelly soapy stuff, a scrub brush on a stick, and elbow grease. Oh, and the plane’s belly has to be done as well, so get ready to lay on your back on a creeper and scrub. A lot. Wear goggles – seriously, wear safety goggles. Solvent in your eye, or de-greasing soap in your eye, is pure h-ll. Trust me on this! Ideally, you won’t get firearm cleaning stuff in your eyes as easily, but I’m sure there’s a way if you work at it. You will end up with dirty bore patches, a bit of oil on your fingers, and the need to scrub your hands after doing firearms. No, do NOT take coffee or other things out with you when you clean firearms. Planes are a little different, but I’d still leave my drink of choice well clear of the bird and the cleaning effort.

Oh, and you’ll find that you need something odd. Leather cleaner for the King Air. You have no idea how many bottles of leather cleaner I went through. Not quite one a week, but it was close if we were busy. The air-ambulance had a white leather interior. The med-crew and some pilots wore combat-style EMS boots. Finding waffle-stomper prints on the upholstery was not rare. And of course just general dirt and grime got into the plane. With the firearms it is having at least two sizes of cleaning cloth bits, because the big ones won’t quite go through the smaller gun, especially if they have solvent on them. And a bit of oil for the moving bits (planes are supposed to take care of this themselves.*) And a silicone wipe for the wood and metal after you finish, especially if you are going to store the firearm for a while.

Oh, and there’s always someone who will be happy to tell you that you are flying/shooting wrong, and to show you the One True Way to do it. And if you are of the distaff persuasion, being associated with an airplane or firearm gives you +20 attraction points. Especially if you have a source of cheap avgas or ammo. Strange, that . . .

*Certain aircraft sling oil out all over themselves so that they go faster. Sort of self-lubricating in the atmosphere. Really. And if you believe that, I have an R-3350 that needs an oil change. The truck full of quart bottles is over there. I’ll tell you when you can stop opening them.

Slow to Smooth to Fast

The axiom is usually applied to shooting – “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” If you learn to move slowly, not rushing, not being herky-jerky with things, you become very smooth when you shoot, and more accurate than if you rush. After sufficient practice, smooth then becomes fast and accurate. I’m noticing this with my own practice, most recently last week, when I was taking my time and concentrating on not rushing and not trying to “beat” the folks two positions down who were shooting semi-autos. Everything flowed much better than it had in the past, even given that I was in pain and tired. Which means I need to practice more when I’m tired and at less than peak, because Murphy was an optimist.

The same thing applies to a lot of manual/physical skills. Flying in particular. I had several people comment that I handled the airplane very smoothly, not rushing, not making large physical inputs. In other words, I wasn’t whapping the stick back and forth to get a result, nor was I stomping on the rudder pedals. For one, doing that sort of thing can break the plane, which is considered poor form (unless you are a mechanic with house-payments. Then you can be very appreciative of the business generated by ham-handed aviators.) Two, it makes passengers turn various shades of green. Three, over-correcting tends to make things worse.

A lot of the first flight lessons is spent on getting students to relax, not strangle the stick/yoke, and to make small corrections smoothly. Even when a student accidentally snap-rolled a non-aerobatic aircraft, I responded quickly but smoothly, with the minimum control input needed to return the blue side to the top and the brown side to the bottom. Ditto when a freak outflow wind slapped my air ambulance plane into knife-edge flight. Granted, I’d had a lot of aerobatic training, so the world tipping over wasn’t new, just a surprise in those particular airplanes. I moved as fast as was appropriate, and smoothly so I didn’t break the plane or scare the passengers and med crew.

There are times to rush. There are even more times to move slowly and smoothly, which becomes quickly because you are not undoing or over-controlling. Firearms, planes, riding a horse or mule, working with power tools and hand tools, applying first aid . . . Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Society too seems to have become herky-jerky, leaping from crisis to cure to cause of the week. Some people are just like that, but the world as a whole seems to have become more abrupt and “rough on the controls.” I won’t blame the internet, because everyone else already does :), but I suspect life would be far easier for more people if those running the place (or who think they are running the place) moved more slowly and smoothly. I know that rushing just makes me flustered and more likely to mess up whatever it is I’m attempting to do.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

From Star Shots to GPS: The more things change . . .

I knew about “shooting the stars” and how to use an astrolabe before GPS became a civilian tool. When I first learned about GPS, I thought, “You know, this seems like I should know this already.” Well, I sort of did. Except now there’s a magic box to run the numbers for me and tell my how far from where-I-want-to-be I actually am.

That hasn’t changed. SIGH. Geographic embarrassment is something I knew a wee bit too well. “I’m not lost, someone moved my landmarks.” Or loused up the winds-aloft forecast, and moved the radio beacon, and . . . Ahem, where was I?

When you are on land, it is relatively easy to use a map, find landmarks, and say, “OK, I can see that mountain there. It is on a 290 degree heading from me.” Then you look at the map, and check for mountains. Anyone who has driven toward Colorado Springs, CO from the east knows that Pikes Peak stand out, and makes a good landmark. If you know the height of the top of the peak, you can then calculate your distance. Even if you don’t know the heading, other than “that way,” you can figure distance if you have a way to measure the angle between you and the top of the mountain. On the map, use a compass set to that distance and draw an arc. You are on that arc. It’s not hard when you have lots of landmarks and are moving slowly. The middle of the ocean, or in mid-air over an ocean is a bit trickier. Or in mid-air over land with a solid undercast and no reliable radio beacons . . . Now you need a watch, astrolabe, skill, and tables of numbers.

To boil down a lot of history and calculations and stuff, astral navigation (also called celestial navigation) means triangulating your position based on at least two, ideally three or four, things in the sky. You measure the angle between you and, say, Venus, the bottom tip of the waxing moon, and the star Vega. As you do that, you also note the time, using a very precise watch (chronometer), probably set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, or Zulu time). With the angles in hand, and the time, you then look at tables and a map. You calculate the angle and time, thus distance, just like you did with the top of Pikes Peak. Three swings of the compass on the map and you have where you were when you took the star-shot. If you are on a ship, you are probably still pretty close, given the speeds most surface ships travel. In a plane? Eh, a bit harder, depending on how fast you are moving.

The point is, you use three or more (or one or two, but the more the merrier) things in the sky to triangulate your location. This has worked for hundreds of years, and still works. It works when batteries fail, or there are not sufficient satellites in “view” for the magic box to calculate time-to-signal and give you your location.

GPS uses the same idea, except that the box has a computer to run the calculations, based on signals from satellites. Two, three, or more broadcast signals. The box in your plane gets those, runs the numbers based on time differences, and hey presto, You Are Here. Unless someone it messing with the signals, or your box has a glitch, or the power goes out, or there are not enough satellites to keep the box happy. All of which have happened to me at least once.

Everything old is new again. GPS takes celestial navigation, speeds it up, and reduces the user’s work load. Until it doesn’t. Then you revert to MAP, or stars, moon, and sun.

Guy Murchie’s book, Song of the Sky, gives a detailed description of celestial navigation as done by airliners in the 1930s-70s. Among other things.

For more information, mostly sailing based:

“I Danced in the Morning”

A story from my not-entirely-misspent aerobatic days.

High in the rain-washed air, above spring greened wheat and grass, the dance begins. The nose of the small crimson and white biplane eases slightly below the horizon, and the rest of the plane rotates around it, stopping wheels high to check seatbelts and oil pressure.  The wings swing crisply upright once again, quickly turning to wards a box drawn in the air that only the mind’s eye can see. The silvery nose of the checker-winged Pitts swings left and right, searching for other airplanes. None appear to seeking eyes, and the plane banks towards the unseen box, dipping a wing three times in salute. Continue reading

Rotor and Wave: Do Not Want!

If you are a power plane, that is. If you are a glider, wave can be your long-sought friend.

One of the local weather guessers was pointing to “neat clouds” the other night, and called up a visible satellite image that showed them streaming off of Pikes Peak in Colorado and flowing in a wave-like pattern as far as the Panhandle. Anyone who has flown the Front Range is probably wincing right now, and maybe reaching for the “bag-in-the-back-of-the-seat-pocket.” Continue reading

When Clarifications Just Muddy the Waters

So, a week or so ago, a US federal agency issued a “clarification” about something that served to confuse matters farther. This is, alas, not rare in any bureaucracy, in part because of legalese and jargon, and in part because bureaucracies incline toward prolixity and complexity unless acted upon by an outside force, and even then clarity isn’t always as clear as one might hope. Continue reading

December 17, 1903

The first powered, controlled, sustained flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft took place on Kill Devil Hill, Kittyhawk, North Carolina. They needed a place with steady wind, away from people, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina provided both.

It wasn’t much by modern standards, but it started a revolution. People had dreamed of flight for thousands of years, and gliders had been around for a while. The problem was launching them. Birds self-launch. People in gliders could do that off of hill sides, if everything went right, but it wasn’t the same as true flight. Hot-air balloons could drift with the wind, and had been around for over a century. Again, control was a problem, as was fire. Gas balloons came next, hydrogen at first, but a light-weight propulsion unit remained, let us say, challenging to find.

Everyone remembers the Wright Brothers. Charlie Taylor is remembered only by rabid aviation buffs, and mechanics. Charlie Taylor created the engine that the Wrights needed. It was . . . rough. It had four in-line iron cylinders on an aluminium case. The compression ratio left a lot to be desired, and the water-cooled engine lacked pumps and other accessories. Steel crankshafts linked to the propellers via chains, one of which had a twist in order to make the props counter-rotating. The props turned relatively slowly. The life of the engine wasn’t all that long, but it worked and worked well enough for powered, controlled flight.

Charlie Taylor delivered the engine in six weeks from order to test run. It was under-weight, produced the required thrust power, and was machined entirely by hand! No one remembers him, unless you are an aircraft mechanic. The FAA also now has a Charlie Taylor Award, for the mechanic or maintenance inspector of the year, usually given for lifetime accomplishment.

For more information:

Well, That Wasn’t Forecast

Thundersleet, freezing rain, snow. All at the same time. At 0200 CDT.

The excessive weather was, in my opinion, excessive. After all, the normal pattern is for rain to change to freezing rain or a mix, then all snow as the cold air nose wedges in and thickens sufficiently to keep the snow frozen from cloud all the way to surface. That’s what all the textbooks show, and what the test questions want.

Alas that High Plains reality never read the textbooks. Continue reading

“Alle Sturmfeste Himmelhunde…”

When I was in university in Germany, I happened to visit the aviation and mechanical museum in Speyer on a day that they were having a book sale/flea market. I snagged a few titles, including a book of pilot songs. Germany being Germany, after you fly and have a few, or when the weather’s bad and you have a few, you sometimes start singing. Some are parodies set to Lutheran chorales, there’s the immortal (and unprintable here) “Hey ladi ladi,” and others. But one that really caught my ear was “Alle Sturmfeste Himmelhunde.” Continue reading