Dispatch from the Texas/Oklahoma border: I’m jamming with Mick Jagger at 7,500 feet, “Gimme Shelter” streaming from my iPod into my Bluetooth headset. The sun is now high enough it’s out of my eyes, the ride is smooth, and a wicked tailwind is propelling me over the ground 50 miles per hour faster than I’m flying.
This day can’t get any better.
I’m off to Marion, Ohio, for the Midwest 150. I’m looking forward to the race. I’ve finally got a chance to get ahead of my nemesis because…
The yoke shudders in my hand.
A rhythmic pounding seizes Race 53. Thump. Thump. Thump. A drumbeat spinner to tail. Deep in her aluminum bones.
My buoyant mood vaporizes.
I kill the music and scan my instruments. All appears well. I fiddle with the mixture. The thumping continues.
I check the mags. First the left, then the right. No change. Could I have lost a piece of my prop? No, it feels too slow for that. The thumping is coming from the engine, but I have no idea what it is.
I work the throttle. Gingerly. Afraid of making things worse. If it changes the thumping, I can’t tell.
In this plane, there’s nothing left to check. The thumping is unchanged. It’s visceral. Deep. Primal.
I punch at the iPad Mini to call up the nearest airports. Nothing for 20 miles. I start scanning for a place to put down. This can only get worse. Then, as quickly as it started, the thumping stops.
Now the only thumping is in my chest.
The engine is running smoothly. All temperatures and pressures “in the green.” Nothing wrong. At all. But I’m a cat on a hot tin roof, eyes flickering from gauge to gauge. Listening for the slightest hiccup. Fingers caressing the yoke and dash for the slightest tremor.
Then the oil pressure gauge ticks down a beat. Then another. It’s still solidly in the green, but it’s dropping. There! It dropped again!
I’m an hour out from my planned fuel stop. I should be able to make it.
The oil pressure needle is yet lower. Damn. It’s not dropping fast enough that I can see it moving, but it seems that at every scan, the needle is lower. Now I’m at the bottom of the green arc. Now below.
I’m losing oil. A lot of oil. Fast. I’m not going to make it. I search for an airport. Any airport.
The closest is a place called Christman Airfield, 16 miles away. I need to get on the ground while I still have oil in the engine. If I run it dry, the engine will seize.I bank gently to the left and throttle back to descend. With the reduced RPM, the oil pressure needle drops into the red. Ahead a 3,000-foot ribbon of back asphalt runs north-south. A pile of duster tanks is mid field. There’s no wind sock, but I don’t need one. Fierce winds are tearing though the high grasses below, mimicking an army of snakes slithering on the march.
I whistle along the downwind, then arc around for a slow-motion final into the wind. My crab angle is slight. The storm gods are being kind; the torrent of wind is straight down the runway. Touch down!
The wind buffets my wings, rocking Race 53 back and forth on her gear as I back-taxi along the narrow strip. I take refuge behind a large hangar, quickly shut down and climb out to inspect the plane.
No oil on the belly. At least not an unusual amount. I pop open the cowl and hold it firmly against the wind. I would never characterize my engine as “clean,” but again, it’s not dripping with oil. I check the oil level. In one hour I’ve lost a quart.
Holy cow. I call the family, then my mechanic. We discuss all the symptoms and decide it’s safe to continue, as the engine is developing full power. My intended stop for the night is Springfield, Missouri, where there appears to be a large maintenance shop.
A stressful game of hopscotch
I take off into the wind, only an hour to go to my fuel stop. At once, the oil pressure gauge starts to unwind. Thirty miles short, I put down at the forlorn strip named Hominy. Oddly, the side of the tarmac is littered with abandoned speed boats, lying at crazy angles on the ground. A sign says to call the cops if you need gas.
I put the very last of the oil I brought with me into the sump. Now I’m burning through a quart and a half an hour. I can’t even finish a race at this rate. I phone home again. My crew will call the shop at Springfield and let them know I’m coming. As I lift off, a text message flashes on my Apple Watch: “Springfield loves Ercoupes. Are expecting you. Fly safe.”
At my fuel stop I buy five quarts of oil and plan a hopscotch flight for the remaining 150 miles. I take off, keeping one eye on the oil gauge. It drops quickly to the middle of the green arc, then stops.
For the next 45 minutes it doesn’t budge. Then, over the outskirts of the city, it begins to unwind again. It’s kissing the redline when I touch down.
A lineman guides me in, and before I shut down four men in ash grey shirts surround the plane. “We’ve been expecting you,” says the oldest.
Five minutes later Race 53 is in the hangar. The mechanics surround the nose of the plane like a team of crack surgeons. The lead mechanic smells the dip stick and confirms I’m burning oil. Next, they pull the spark plugs. The expectation is that one should be fouled. None is. Compression checks follow.
The front right cylinder is at 30, down from mid 70s a week ago at Race 53’s annual. The cylinder has “laid down on you,” I’m told. It takes me a few moments to process what this means. It means that it needs to be replaced. It’s Thursday afternoon. They think they can get me airborne again on Monday.
That’s fast for aircraft mechanics. Especially for ones helping a stranger.
But it won’t be fast enough. I’ll miss the race. I’ve just lost the race season. Charles Cluck will go. He’ll be 100 points up on me. I won’t be able to recover from that.
Defeated, I approve the repair. What else can I do? When the bad jug is pulled, dozens of piston ring fragments rain down on the hangar floor, each striking a musical note as it hits the concrete. None of the grey shirts has ever seen anything like it before.
Concession and an unexpected reprieve
I’m feeling stronger now on my second glass of Rodney Strong Cabernet, but I know when I’m beat. I text my nemesis to tell him I’m broken down.
“It looks like the season goes to you, good sir,” I write.
Given the point spread and the cost of repairs I’m facing, I don’t see any point in continuing the season.
A bit later he texts me back that he’s withdrawn from the race, saying he really didn’t like the weather anyway. I’m stunned. What the hell? Has he been drinking more than me?
I peck out a message: “You realize that if you go you’ll be 100 points up and likely clinch it, right?”
His reply: “Where’s the drama and suspense in that story?”
I stare at the message for a long time. My old nemesis would have danced a jig of joy. To her, it was all about winning. Nothing else.
Now I have a competitor who enjoys the chase. Who doesn’t want the easy win. Who wants to win in a fair flying fight; not because of a breakdown.
I down the last swig of wine. Damn the repair bill, full speed ahead. I’m in this to the last race of the season.