This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first story here.
Dispatch from an oil-soaked tarmac at KSAF, Santa Fe, New Mexico: My chief mechanic, sitting in Race 53’s cockpit, slowly inches the throttle forward. The dull thrum of the engine changes in tempo, becoming an angry snarl. Then the snarl shifts into a throaty baritone.
Race 53 shakes and bucks, fighting her brakes. I can see the metal skin on the underside of her wings rippling in the prop wash blasting back from the propeller, now dissolved into a pale grey disc of motion.
My other mechanic, standing to my right on the tarmac, catches my eye. He points to the plane, points to his ear, then flexes his bicep: The engine sounds strong.
I breathe a sigh of relief. Despite being nearly robbed of all oil, the flight was short enough that the new stroker engine survived.
Now, oil fully replenished, we’re trying to figure out just what the hell happened. How did our oil pressure drop to zero in two minutes of flight? Drop to zero with no apparent damage, no broken hoses, no holes in the sump, no cracks in the cylinders or in the case.
So far, it’s a mystery.
The lack of spilt oil inside the cowl points toward the breather tube as the prime suspect for how the oil got out of the engine, but so far during post-flight testing, no oil has come out of it.
The logbooks show the new stroker was run at full power for an hour and a half at the rebuild shop, and was tested again at medium-high RPM by my team after they hung the engine.
In both test runs it never spit out a drop of oil. And over the last 15 minutes my guys have taxied Race 53 around the entire ramp without one drop of oil lost. Now they’re working the engine up to full power on the tarmac out in front of their hangar.
The throaty baritone of the engine evolves into a deep roar; the chief has advanced the throttle again. Suddenly, a stream of oil blasts out of the breather tube at the bottom of the engine. A garden hose… no… a fire hose of oil splattering back, one, two, nearly three plane lengths behind Race 53. In a second the faded grey tarmac is transformed into a field of shiny, glistening black.
The mechanic on the tarmac jumps up and down, waving his hands over his head, making the time out signal, then swiping his hand back and forth across this throat. In the plane, the lead mechanic cuts the throttle, and, as suddenly as it started, the brown geyser stops. The engine isn’t leaking oil. It is jettisoning it. At high pressure. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Neither, unfortunately, have my mechanics.
Analyzing the fire hose
The rest of the day dissolves into an ever-lengthening series of tests and phone calls back and forth between the maintenance shop and the rebuild shop. Time and time again I see oil shoot from the breather tube under the engine, but never with the full-force fire hose effect that I witnessed the first time; the mechanics cut the power as soon as the oil starts to shoot out. After each test, they pour more oil in the sump and test the next theory.
Sadly, each experiment does no more than rule out a cause, each test getting us no closer to an answer.
The elephant on the ramp finally has to be acknowledged. It’s inescapable. There’s only one thing left to do. The engine, just lovingly hung days before, with its painstakingly reworked baffling system of sheet metal, rubber gaskets, rivets, and caulk — each bead of which was carefully squeezed into place like ribbons of icing on a wedding cake — must come back off the plane, and the stroker has to be shipped back to the shop that built it. There, it can be taken apart so the cause of the explosive venting of oil can be discovered.
Once again, Race 53 will be engineless.
Emergency? What emergency?
I’m unloading the plane. We won’t be flying again for quite a while. I place our headset cases on the wing, then reach into the back for our in-flight snack of mixed nuts, string cheese, peanut M&Ms, and Duke’s sausage sticks. The four bottles of oil can stay behind.
I climb out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop down to the ground. Lisa is chatting with another pilot who’s drifted over to check out the action.
Casting an eye over the oil-splattered tarmac she calmly asks us, “Is this your first emergency?”
Lisa and I exchange startled looks. “Oh!” exclaims the pilot, “Did you not know you were having an emergency?”
“Uh…. I guess… I guess not,” I stammer.
I’ve been flying all my life, or so it seems. Was this really my first emergency? I’ve been in a few hairy situations in my decades of flying, but nothing I’d really consider a proper emergency. Was this actually an actual, honest-to-God, bonafide emergency?
I’m still not sure, but her question bounces around inside my head for the rest of the day, like an echo ricocheting down a canyon.
The final chapter
I don’t know yet what went wrong, when I’ll have the engine back, or who will pay for the removal and shipment of the engine back to the master builder. I don’t know if he is at fault. Did he do something wrong or neglect a step? Or did some part fail, at no fault of his own? At this junction, he seems as stumped as my team.
But I do know one thing for sure: With the clock winding down on the Sport Air Racing League season, it’s all over for me. For my plans. For our Gold Quest.
To add insult to injury, when the old engine was dissembled 61 days ago, it was found to be in remarkably good shape after all. We could have finished the season with it, maybe won the Gold, and then dealt with the drama of the rebuild after the season was over.
It was yet one more punch in the gut, but it’s water under the bridge now.
So that’s it. We’re at the end of our two-year story. Thank you for coming along with me on this adventure.
Come November, I’ll go out to the season championship, hopefully in Race 53. But if not, I’ll drive to Taylor, Texas, in my car to pick up my trophy. The one that doesn’t have the little silver plane at the top. That trophy will go to Charles Cluck.
But, at least as it stands today, I have enough points that there’s little doubt I’ll remain in second place with the Silver.
Am I bummed? A little, sure. But not much. After all, I’ve had an awesome adventure, I’m a better pilot for my experiences, and I have new circle of friends within the aviation community.
Will I race again? Damn right. But not like this. Not all-out. I won’t have the time.
Because Race 53 — already a World Speed Record holder and about to become a two-time National Champion race plane — is about to embark on a whole ‘nother type of aerial adventure.
And when we get ready to launch, I’ll invite you to come along with me in the cockpit again — right here on GeneralAviationNews.com.
My League Points: 840, 500 less than last season.
My League Standing: Second Place among production airplanes, a.k.a. the Two-time First Loser.