Dispatch from Jose’s Bar and Grill on Route 66: Iconic radio broadcaster Paul Harvey was famous for his “The Rest of the Story” reports, which dug deeper into headline stories or found little known and forgotten gems of modern history.
He liked to end the broadcast segment, which reached 24 million people on 1,200 radio stations, with, “and now you know… the rest of the story.”
Recently, people are asking me for the rest of the story.
Oh, not for Paul Harvey’s story. Everyone knows he was an avid aviator, a 50-year-plus member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), major fan of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, and early investor in Cirrus Aircraft.
The story everyone is asking me about is the rest of my engine story.
When we last left off on our tale back in October, the engine rebuilder had thrown in the towel and decided to switch the project back to our original engine case, rather than the identical case we purchased to save time on the rebuild — don’t get me started — and Race 53 once again sat on the ground engineless.
And so she remained until shortly after the final race of the 2017 Sport Air Racing League (SARL) air racing season and the crowning of the season champs, which having no plane, I drove to.
But on a cold November morning on the ramp in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a week later, the third-try engine, bolted onto the plane, was ready for testing.
To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for it, but as I looked on, Race 53’s latest engine coughed to life. After a long period at idle to warm up the oil and the moving parts, we all crossed our fingers and my chief mechanic pushed the throttle forward. No oil burst forth.
After July, August, September, October, and half of November engineless, we now had a working engine.
But my problems with Race 53 didn’t end there. Oh, no. Not at all.
If it’s not one damned thing, it’s another…
My grandfather was fond of grumbling, “If it’s not one damned thing, it’s another.” How true.
My December was spent pitching, un-pitching, and re-pitching our prop so it would work with Engine Three, as we began to call it.
Engine Three was powerful enough that we were redlining the tach at half power with the prop in its original pitch. A re-pitch to a more cruise-like prop gave me a mind-numbing speed increase, but not enough lifting oomph to get off our high altitude mile-long runways without hair-raising excitement.
The whole prop issue became an aeronautical Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and each subsequent time I taxied up to the prop shop they were less happy to see me than the time before.
The prop ultimately optimally pitched at last, I opened the hangar door in January to find Race 53 sitting in a puddle of her own oil.
This wasn’t like the previous oil issue, where oil blasted out of the breather vent when the engine was running. This was a resting oil leak.
After much trial and error, and many strategically placed paper towels to figure out where the Sam Heck the oil was leaking from, it turned out to be a wonky oil quick drain valve leaking.
That taken care of, in February the header tank sprang a fuel leak. Into the cockpit. Replacing the unfixable tank entailed removing pretty much everything in the cockpit to get the old tank out and the new tank in.
That led to a March full of the type of issues you’d expect when you disconnect and reconnect things that have been connected for seven decades.
We lost our com radios. Then we had some (exciting) issues with the controls sticking. Next the throttle stuck. At full blast. And all the while the new digital engine monitor was having teething problems, giving heart-stopping readings as various sensors and connectors failed.
In April the exhaust came loose. While in for repair for that issue, a worn section of engine mount was discovered and had to be repaired.
Race 53 now has a reserved parking place in the back of my mechanic’s hangar behind red velvet ropes, my Hobbs meter is covered in dust, I’m rapidly approaching one full year of maintenance, and now the plane is down for her annual. I dream of someday flying again.
But what caused the original problems?
But that sad litany isn’t what you want to know about, is it? You want to know what caused the massive vomiting of oil out of the first two rebuild attempts, don’t you?
Yeah. Me, too.
The sad truth is that we never did figure out what caused the problem. It was fixed by abandoning the engine case involved in the first two rebuilds, and switching to another.
Obviously, there was some subtle something wrong with the other case that when converted to a O-200, caused an oil geyser.
But the cause was never revealed. Inspection of the dismantled case didn’t reveal any obvious clues and, to some degree, the problem defies all mechanical logic in the first place.
As the months rolled past, sort of like Big Foot sightings, I heard rumors of other geyser sightings.
But they were always like the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants’ knowledge of Sea Bears: “Sea bears are no laughing matter. Why, once I met this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy…who knew this guy’s cousin…”
In the same way I’d get emails from pilots and mechanics, who while never having seen an oil geyser themselves, met this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy, who knew this guy’s cousin, who had seen one.
Still, it was nice to know that my issue, while exceedingly rare, was not, apparently, one of a kind.
Excuse me while I step outside and scream
Most maddeningly in all of this is that I later learned that when our original engine was cracked open, it was found to be “in pretty good shape.”
So really, all of this was for nothing, while causing me to miss out on half the 2017 race season. And perhaps the Gold.
So now that we’re up and running again, what about the 2018 racing season?
In the spring (between the leaking gas tank and the exhaust issues) I threw my hat in the ring, but as my plane problems mounted, I took my hat back out of the ring before the first race.
Partly it was the mounting repair costs, but mostly, given all that’s happened, I’ve simply lost trust in my trusty steed, and need to regain it before I travel thousands of miles in her — much less race her.
Nuts, bolts, and…ribs?
Still, something must have caused the original problem, right?
What do I personally think caused it?
Many knowledgeable mechanics wrote in (thank you, all) and felt our issue was caused by the wrong length of breather inlet, but that isn’t our smoking gun. We had the proper modification all along.
So what else could cause it?
To my mind, the best theory to date deals with the internal structure of the engine. I’m told that inside the case there’s a structure similar to a rib that adds strength to the case wall. This rib is on both sides of the case, but the two ribs don’t quite meet at the top.
In other words, there’s some open space — a gap — between them. How much of a gap? Well, that’s where this theory gets interesting.
Apparently, this gap is one of the few internal structures that doesn’t have a specific published tolerance from Continental, as it doesn’t have a mechanical function, and doesn’t interact with the moving parts.
As it so happens, the opening between the two sides is less on the case we purchased than it was on Race 53’s original case, which we’re back to using now.
My team thinks that in some way that they can’t clearly imagine or even fully articulate to me, this is the root cause of the problem. Perhaps, they say, the gap didn’t matter with the original crankshaft, but for some reason it does matter with the slightly larger O-200 crank.
The thinking further goes that, as it “didn’t matter” in the original configuration, perhaps the size of the gap might have varied pretty widely from engine to engine when they were manufactured, without triggering any quality control alarms, nor did the variable gaps cause any operational issues in the field with the original cranks.
But maybe, just maybe, once modified, the size of the gap matters. But if true, shouldn’t more people be having problems?
Not necessarily, fans of this explanation argue.
What if, for instance, one in a thousand of the C-85s had this tight gap? No one knows how many C-85s have been converted to O-200 strokers under the supplemental type certificate (STC) that allows it, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how an uncommonly tight gap would rarely meet up with a conversion.
In other words, there might only be a few C-85s out there that can’t be successfully converted, and I had the bum luck to buy one. They are rare — rare enough to have been missed as a possibility when the STC was granted — but still existing in just large enough numbers to result in the occasional Big Foot sighting.
And one ruined underdog race season for yours truly.
But it’s only a theory, and I don’t know that this is what really happened.
For all I know, Race 53, like her living machine namesake, has a mind of her own and just didn’t want to part with her original engine.
In the end, all I know is that we’ll never know the rest of the story.