Sunday, April 11, 2004

Worship

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
11 Apr 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI), local flight 1.0 179.6


Easter Sunday 2004, at the controls of my new (to me) airplane.  I entered a climbing spiral, twisting upward through a hole in the layer of scattered clouds.  It was my first time solo above the clouds.  Upon leveling off at 5500 feet, I was treated to the sight of Dave in Decathlon 68W performing a loop several miles away.

Once he was done showing-off, Dave fell into formation off my left wing for a few moments before peeling off to refuel (above).

This is one of my favorite photos; the dichotomy of a frozen instant in time that nevertheless conveys energy and motion.  Lucky shot, given digital camera shutter lag.  It was a memorable tribute to the fundamental physics of flight under the vast arched cathedral of the sky.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Kristy's First Ride in Her New Airplane

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
07 Apr 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI), local flight 0.7 178.6

After enduring numerous rides in various rental aircraft, it was time for Kristy to get her first ride in Warrior 481.  Dave was trying to convince her that, though I chose, purchased, and flew Warrior 481, our new acquisition was in fact her airplane.


We flew along the shoreline of Lake Michigan one evening with Dave in formation.  Arjo rode back seat with Dave and took all the photos of us in our new airplane.  I think the ride went well; blowing up the above photo will show that Kristy is actually smiling.  Whew...


Here we are, southbound over Saugatuck, MI.  Even during that ride, I suspect Kristy had no idea how much a part of our lives Warrior 481 would eventually become.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

From Renter to Owner

Learning the Way of the Warrior

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
27 Feb 2004 N2515U 35D (Allegan, MI) - local flight 1.1 165.6

"Allegan Traffic, Warrior One Five Uniform, left downwind one zero, Allegan."

For only the fourth time in my life, I was flying left seat in a strange airplane with a new instructor at my side. I was comfortable at the controls of the Piper Warrior because it was a doppelganger of the Cherokee 180 out of Three Rivers in which I had already logged thirty hours. But I quickly learned that there were some subtle differences in the handling characteristics between Pipers bearing the constant chord (Hershey Bar) wing of the 180 versus the semi-tapered wing on the Warrior.

Seven Zero Romeo, my introduction to flying low wing Pipers. September 21, 2003.

Abeam the runway numbers, I reduced power and added 10° of flaps. Prior Cherokee experience suggested that this new configuration would cause the nose to drop and I automatically moved to increase nose-up trim.

"You don't need to do that in this airplane," Ken interjected. He was right. As I reduced power and adjusted flap settings, the airplane remained in trim.

Turning final approach, the Warrior exceeded my expectations again when Ken suggested I bring the throttle back to idle. In the Cherokee 180, I was accustomed to carrying power right down to the runway to avoid the high sink rate it exhibited at idle power. Following Ken's instructions, I pulled the Warrior's t-handle throttle back to idle and listened to the rumble of the engine die away. With the runway threshold still ahead of us, I was pleasantly surprised by how unlike a brick the Warrior continued to glide.

Rolling down runway 10, I settled the flap lever back to the floor. As I leaned forward, my headset caught on the sun visor and pulled off of my head. I cleared the runway, stopped the airplane, and resettled my errant headgear.

"Low headroom," I remarked to Ken.

"I can fix that," he said with a grin and reached for a lever outside my field of vision that dropped my seat several inches.

"Oh," I noted, chagrined. It never occurred to me that the Warrior's seat height would be adjustable. After all, the majority of my flying time was in a 1976 Cessna 150M. In that airplane, occupants essentially sat on the floor and vertical adjustment was accomplished by varying the number of pillows placed under the pilot's rear end.

N2515U photographed at South Haven, July 4, 2005


After an hour in N2515U, Ken endorsed me as "checked out" and qualified to fly a Warrior. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the aircraft handled; a low wing Piper with the visibility I liked, but with handling more like a Cessna. To my way of thinking, it was truly the best of both worlds.

What compelled me to get checked out in a new airplane that February afternoon?

Technically, it was an insurance company. Underlying that, however, was stagnation. N2515U was a stepping stone in a journey toward something better.

A Pilot Certificate Is a Terrible Thing To Waste

A few months prior to my February flight in Warrior 2515U, I came to a simple conclusion: stagnation is a dreadful thing.

A year after earning my private pilot certificate, I came to realize that I was at a crossroads. I was still renting the same Cessna 150 that had served as my battered steed throughout flight training. Sometimes I made excursions in the nicer, faster - but pricier - Cherokee 180 also available for rent at Three Rivers (HAI). Being airborne still made me indescribably happy, but after a year with the rental fleet, I became frustrated.


Seven Zero Romeo in Flushing, MI. October 6, 2003.

Because they were rentals, people treated the aircraft with a rental mentality. The airplanes were often dirty, always in high demand, and sometimes returned late by careless renters. This latter point was brought home to me on September 2, 2003. I had rented the Cherokee 180 to ferry Dave to Ludington where poor weather had forced him and his wife to abandon their Super Decathlon the previous weekend. But another renter continued to fly the Cherokee for an hour beyond his scheduled time, leaving us waiting on the ground twiddling our thumbs rather than plying the skies above.

"You need your own airplane," Dave grumbled as we sat earthbound beneath achingly beautiful cerulean heavens. Though offhand, Dave's comment stuck with me. When the other renter did return, he swaggered past us as though he'd just landed in an F-16 and was unrepentant about his thoughtlessness.

Just as Dave and his wife flew to Ludington for a weekend getaway, I also wanted to take longer trips out of the area. I wanted to explore the world - or at least the continental United States - from the air. Though rental airplanes are usually priced as a function of flight time, longer trips usually invoke daily minimum charges whenever the airplane sits parked at the destination airport. This compensates the flight school for lost revenue while the airplane is unavailable, but adds significant cost for any renter taking an extended trip.

As a result, I stayed close to Three Rivers whenever I rented an airplane. But it became difficult to justify the time and expense of renting an airplane just to bop around the same local airspace with landings at the same nearby airports. With nothing new to do, at least those landings became consistently good, but there was no adventure in it.


Having a dream slowly devolve into expensive tedium seemed an unfortunate reward for anyone tenacious enough to earn a pilot certificate. 
If I stayed on that path, I knew that I would become one of those pilots that never flew anymore. I needed something new to do. 

I considered the option of an instrument rating. From my reading, however, I knew that an instrument ticket requires frequent practice to stay proficient. The instrument rating struck me as most useful for traveling pilots that need to minimize the impact of weather on their schedules. Because I did not expect to travel in rental airplanes, it was unlikely that I would use the skills of an instrument rating often enough for me to rely on them when actually needed. As a result, I saw no point in pursuing an instrument rating at this stage.

Instead, I realized that Dave's casual comment in Three Rivers summed up the most logical next step for me: my own airplane. It would be there for me at a moment's notice, for as long as I wanted, and always in the same condition in which I left it. If I started using the airplane for travel, that would be a logical time to pursue an instrument rating. And if that was the case, I could do the training in my own airplane. Most importantly, with Dave as a role model, I knew that owning an airplane was entirely within my reach.

Research

I did my homework carefully. I talked with other owners, read articles about purchasing aircraft, and studied websites like VRef and ASO (Aircraft Shopper Online) over several months to get a feel for the cost of various types and configurations. I ran mortgage simulations and obtained on-line insurance quotes for various aircraft I was considering. By the end of 2003 I was leaning toward something in the Piper Cherokee line. From my experiences in renting both Piper and Cessna aircraft, I decided that I preferred the visibility out of the low-wing Piper, even if I preferred the Cessna's handling.

Me, Pam, and my "new" airplane on May 2, 2004. Photo by Kristy.

For Christmas of 2003, my sister-in-law Pam presented me with a timely gift: James Ellis' book, "Buying and Owning Your Own Airplane". The book crystallized many of the conclusions I had already drawn and was full of step-by-step advice on the purchasing process. After digesting the contents of the book, I felt like I was ready to start looking in earnest.

Caveat Emptor

Apprehensive about the logistics of purchasing an aircraft and knowing that distance would complicate matters further, I focused my search close to home: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. After monitoring ASO and Trade-A-Plane for a couple of months, a good deal appeared on a 1978 Piper Warrior II in Ohio. Photographs displayed an aircraft with a well-equipped instrument panel, a beautiful new paint job, and a new leather interior. Best of all, the advertisement noted a recently overhauled engine. 

It seemed too good to be true.

Ready to pounce on it, I first called John. John is an aircraft mechanic and owns Conrad Aero, the FBO in Three Rivers where I learned to fly. I knew him well, liked him, and most importantly, trusted him. After listening carefully to his advice, I called the number in the newly-posted advertisement.

Unfortunately, my telephone inquiry revealed a bait-and-switch. Despite claims of a recent overhaul, the airplane actually bore a middle aged, 1100 hour engine. The seller apologized for this "editorial error" and provided me with an appropriately reduced price. Though suspicious, I realized that the engine should still have some life in it and I continued to delve deeper.

To my frustration, the seller was an aircraft broker with very little practical knowledge about the airplane she was selling. Independent research (the web is a wonderful thing) revealed that the "minor wingtip damage" noted in the ad was actually a significant encounter between the aircraft and a fence that had resulted in significant damage to the structural elements in the left wing.

As my surfing revealed unadvertised airframe damage, John examined copies of the aircraft log books. This was a tremendous service he provided for me free of charge. He found some suspicious entries about an in-flight engine failure followed by a field overhaul in Mexico. Some of the overhaul work was repeated a year later by another mechanic, casting doubt on the quality of work done south of the border. The logs also revealed a recent engine fire severe enough that the owner apparently took the airplane to several different mechanics before finding one willing to sign it off as airworthy. John conceded that this might be a wonderful aircraft, but the log books did not inspire confidence.

I agreed.

When I terminated the deal, the broker resorted to shame and guilt. "You're not going to find an airplane of that age that doesn't have some history," she scolded. "I've ridden in the aircraft and it flies just fine." This did not impress me as a particularly rigorous or expert assessment of the ship's condition.

The sharp-looking Warrior remained on the market for several more months. All of the discrepancies from the original advertisement remained unchanged in the listing. Eventually, the aircraft disappeared from the listings, presumably sold to someone less discriminating.


Out of morbid curiosity, I searched on the tail number of that aircraft two years later. I found it available for auction from an aircraft salvager. It seems that the Warrior had succumbed to yet another engine fire. Photographs showed a blackened powerplant hung on the front of a Piper with a familiar paint scheme. Not knowing the cause of the fire, I have no idea what the ultimate moral of the story might be in this case. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to feel as though I dodged a bullet.

Oklahoma?

Although my first experience with an aircraft seller was not positive, it was educational and I resumed searching with greater understanding and confidence. I also expanded the search to a wider area. In doing so, I found N21481, a 1979 Piper Warrior. The airplane had 60 hours on an overhauled engine with a recent paint job and interior. The price was competitive with comparable airplanes listed for sale at the same time. The new twist in this case was that the airplane was located in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

My first thought was, Oklahoma? That's one of the big states somewhere in the middle, right? Despite my worries about the distance, I called the seller.


N21481 as advertised in ASO. Photo by Bill S.

The owner, Bill, and I played a couple rounds of phone tag before finally connecting in real time. Bill was refreshingly knowledgeable and frank about the airplane and its condition. After a lengthy phone interview and some follow-up discussion with John, I called Bill again and offered a deposit. Bill responded that I was first in line.


Negotiations

Bill agreed to send copies of the log books for John to examine. He also promised to hold the airplane for me, but suggested that I refrain from sending a deposit until we examined the logs. That way, if we found something we did not like, we could stop the process without needing to exchange money again. This sounded like an excellent idea to me. The more I talked to Bill, the more I realized that he was a genuinely decent guy.

Before long, John had copies of the books in his hands. His comments were generally positive. He noted that the airplane, with about 4400 total hours on it, had seen typical and appropriate care over the years. There is a puzzling lapse in logbook activity from the early 1980's to the early 1990's. However, the tachometer times on either side of the gap match perfectly such that it appears Warrior 481 spent the Reagan years sitting in a hangar. Time as a "hangar queen" can be a deal-breaker, raising major concerns about corrosion in an engine that sat idle for far too long. However, the first logbook entry following the gap describes a major overhaul for the engine which was then flown regularly for the several years leading up to the most recent overhaul in 2003.


Finding nothing disagreeable in the logbooks, I agreed on the verbiage of a purchase agreement with Bill and wired a deposit to Oklahoma. The next step was a physical evaluation of the airplane. It would have been cost prohibitive to ferry John to the airplane and, likewise, costly to bring the airplane to John. Instead, I contracted a mechanic in Guthrie to do a pre-buy inspection under my supervision. This mechanic had no prior experience with Bill's airplane, which meant that I was likely to get a more objective assessment of its condition.


The aircraft was due for an annual inspection at the end of March. Ideally, I would have had a trusted mechanic (i.e., John) perform a combined pre-buy / annual inspection. However, I decided to make my purchase decision based on the pre-buy inspection and John's review of the logbooks. If all went well, I would complete the deal and bring the airplane to John for an annual. This seemed like a good compromise between keeping my costs down while still minimizing the risk of purchasing a flying lemon.


The next trick was getting to Guthrie. In the end, I was able to procure a one way car rental through Hertz for a reasonable price with a drop-off in nearby Edmond, Oklahoma. If the pre-buy did not go well, I would forgo the drop-off and simply return to Kalamazoo in the car.



N2515U

Despite my 30 hours in a Piper Cherokee 180, I could not obtain insurance coverage for the Warrior without logging an hour of dual instruction in one. With the Warrior being one of several variants in the Cherokee (PA-28) line, this irked me. I already knew how to fly a Cherokee and I assumed this to be the same airplane with slightly less horsepower (160 vs 180). Bowing to the insurance company's wishes, I found myself aloft over Allegan for a check out in N2515U on February 27, 2004. That hour of dual instruction was eye-opening and I was glad the insurance company had required a checkout, effectively saving me from my own naiveté. At the conclusion of the lesson, I purchased a Warrior II operator's handbook from the FBO in Allegan. I studied the manual carefully in preparation for a potential cross country flight in a new-to-me-airplane.


"Oklahoma, Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain"

Scanned image of the sectional chart I took with me to Guthrie - back when
 people still did things like draw lines on paper charts.

On Tuesday, March 9, 2004, I departed Kalamazoo at 6:30 am in darkness during a lake effect snow storm. I was delayed by futile attempts to understand why the rental Taurus' dome light would not extinguish. It was as though the car's simple brain was certain that one of the doors was open. No amount of opening and closing doors appeased the car.

Because it was dark and snowing, the windscreen did a better job of reflecting the lit interior back at me than revealing what lay in the murk beyond the Taurus' hood. I made for the airport Hertz rental office to have them deal with it, holding my right hand over the dome light as I drove so I could see where I was going. Within a few miles, however, the car warmed up and the dome light extinguished on its own and stayed that way.

I had a daunting 950 mile, 14 hour drive in front of me for the day. The only significant stop that I made was in Bloomington, IL to have lunch with Greg, my best friend from high school. Along the way I sipped from a bottle of water picked up at an Illinois rest stop and made periodic cell phone calls to check in with Kristy and my lender. Before nightfall, I set up the escrow, checked in with Kristy twice, and was driving within Oklahoma's borders. I knew that I was a stranger in a strange land when the route took me past numerous signs warning me not to drive into any smoke. The mystique of the Will Rogers Turnpike deepened further when I drove beneath a garish colossus straddling I-44 that claimed to be the world's largest McDonald's, as though such a thing was a noteworthy or enviable accomplishment.


The final hour of the drive was spent straining to keep my eyes open. When I stumbled into the Guthrie Best Western, I was so tired that I did not notice when the counter clerk misspelled Kalamazoo as "Calmizu" on my invoice.



The First Look

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
10 Mar 2004 N21481 GOK (Guthrie, OK) - local flight0.5166.1

After getting some sleep and a decent continental breakfast at the Best Western, I made my way to the Guthrie (GOK) airport. With the combination to Bill's hangar in hand, I unlocked the door and slipped inside to look upon N21481 for the first time. She was beautiful. Digital photographs can hide a lot of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cosmetic defects. But she was gorgeous.


N21481 instrument panel, July 1, 2004.

I slipped into the pilot's seat, reached for the yoke and throttle, and made airplane noises.

So far, so good.

I resisted the urge to become too enamored with the airplane and prepared myself to walk away from it if the inspection revealed that to be necessary.

N21481 prior to painting. Photo by Bill S.

The mechanic began the pre-buy inspection as I watched. John was with me in spirit via the litany of items he wanted me to ensure were checked during the inspection. This was quite a learning experience for me and the mechanic did a good job of explaining everything he did.

We found that the engine compression was good. The oil filter had some evidence of metal in it, but no more than expected for a recently-overhauled engine. I was a bit alarmed when, looking into the wing inspection panels, we observed what appeared to be a crack in the wing spar. Fortunately, the "crack" washed off with acetone, effectively rendering it a non-issue.


During the inspection, the owner of the shop visited with us briefly while giving the airplane a critical eye. "Piper finally got it right with these tapered wing birds," he concluded. "Made 'em handle like Cessnas." Having learned this lesson already in Allegan, I could only nod in agreement.

All in all, we compiled a short list of squawks, but they were minor issues for a 25 year old airplane. None of them affected airworthiness...until we reached the static RPM check. At full throttle, with the brakes locked, the engine RPM was below the range specified per the type certificate data sheet. We checked the tachometer and found it to be accurate. Given that low static RPM is an airworthiness issue, I notified Bill. He agreed to cover the costs of any required repair. After an inaccurate tachometer, the next most likely cause for low static RPM is a propeller pitched higher than certified for the Warrior.

That evening, Bill and I launched in Warrior 481 on a test flight just as the sun was setting. The airplane climbed enthusiastically and flew straight and level hands-off. All instruments and radios were in good working condition. I was sure, at that point, that I would buy the airplane pending resolution of the static RPM issue. After the test flight, we removed the propeller for inspection by the local Prop Shop. That night, I had a pleasant dinner with Bill and his family.



Best Phone Call Ever

The next morning, "Marvin the Prop Guy" called to say that the prop was fine. The Guthrie mechanic continued to seek an explanation for low static RPM on an engine that otherwise appeared to be in excellent condition.

Finally, he proposed that the valve timing was slightly off as a result of improper indexing of some gears when the engine was reassembled post-overhaul. According to Lycoming, the airplane could still be flown without risk to it or myself, but the issue needed to be fixed in order for 481 to pass her annual inspection in Three Rivers.

The mechanic estimated the repair to cost about $900, but did not have time to do it for at least a week. After several conversations with Bill and John, we agreed that Bill would reduce the price by $1000 and that John would do the repair in Michigan during the annual. Bill was very proactive about redressing this unexpected mechanical problem and I was glad for the good fortune to be working with him.

On March 11, I returned the rental car to a Hertz office in Edmond, OK. Bill drove me back to Guthrie and we closed on the airplane. Closing was a non-event, requiring a simple phone call from the ramp of the Guthrie airport that set everything in motion.

The FBO at Guthrie offered overnight use of their beat-up Mercury Sable courtesy car with the caveat that I should not drive it any farther than I wanted to walk. Thus warned and with the steering wheel wobbling in my hands, I returned to the hotel in the early afternoon. The first thing I did was telephone my Dad. When he answered the phone, I said something to the effect of, "hi, I'm in Oklahoma and I just bought an airplane." Because this was the first time I ever mentioned buying an airplane to him, he was a bit stunned.

Having exercised my flair for the dramatic, I slept the remainder of the afternoon. I was mentally and physically exhausted and needed the rest.


The Flight Home

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
12 Mar 2004 N21481 GOK (Guthrie, OK) - M17 (Bolivar, MO) -
50I (Kentland, IN) - HAI (Three Rivers, MI)
6.5 172.6

On the morning of March 12, I awoke early and packed my bags. I spent 30 minutes on the phone with an outstanding briefer from the local Flight Service Station. He provided a very comprehensive view of what to expect from the weather across the entire route home. Simply put, the weather forecast was perfect for a long cross-country flight. Rain was moving into Oklahoma from Texas, but I would escape Guthrie before its arrival. Most of the route was forecast to be sunny and clear. A weather system was sprinkling snow over southwest Michigan, but that was expected to move out in the early afternoon.

For the journey home, I planned a reasonably direct route that used airports as VFR landmarks (and pit stops!) while avoiding the several MOAs (military operation areas) in Missouri, southern Illinois and Indiana. There was no further planning left to do; it was time to fly home.

The moment of truth came after shimmying back to the airport in the old Sable. I pulled the airplane out of Bill's hangar and attempted to start it for a taxi to the fuel pump. I energized the electrical system, activated the fuel pump, turned the magneto switch to "both" and pushed in the key to engage the starter. Immediately, the vigorous sound of the fuel pump diminished. The prop completed one labored revolution before the electrical system died entirely.

Nothing quenches the excitement of starting your airplane for the first time like a dead battery. With help from the FBO, we jumpstarted the airplane. I ran it for a while to charge up the battery, then taxied to the gas pump and shut the engine back down. After topping off the tanks, the engine started without difficulty. I surmised that the inspection on the previous day overtaxed the battery, too much time spent with the electrical system energized without the alternator running to replenish charge.


Within minutes, Guthrie was at my tail and I was on course for a 668 nautical mile journey back to Three Rivers (HAI). Prior to this, the longest straight line distance I ever flew was the 125 nautical miles between Three Rivers and Ludington(LDM) flown five months earlier. Manipulating the controls of my new airplane, I was awash with an unforgettable feeling of excitement and trepidation.

I had logged 30 minutes total in this airplane and I was about to fly it halfway across the country.

My approximate route home.

I flew at 5500 feet for most of the way with the GPS showing a typical ground speed of 114 knots (131mph). Flying with GPS was novel unto itself. It was only my second time flying with a GPS and my first flight with this particular GPS, a Lowrance 100, that was a present from Kristy.

The air was calm and clear and the airplane flew magnificently. I marveled at the sight of the Tulsa skyline protruding through a blanket of ground fog. I carried no camera, deciding that I should do without the distraction while at the controls of an unfamiliar aircraft.

Two hours later, just as planned, I let down into Bolivar, Missouri (M17). It was a crummy landing. I flared too high and plunked her onto the pavement. The folks in Bolivar were extremely friendly, consistent with the favorable comments I read about them on AirNav. They were delighted that I chose to stop there on my long trip and happy to hear that the on-line community held their little restaurant in such high esteem. I had a great omelet with toast for lunch, deciding to forgo the daily special of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I topped off the tanks and noted that the fuel burn was consistent with expectations. All was as it should have been.


With one third of the journey complete, I left Bolivar and continued past my original intended stop near St. Louis. Leaving Missouri, I was amazed at the incredible flatness and general desolation of southern Illinois. I typically keep my eyes open for potential landing sites in the event of an engine failure. This was a challenging exercise while crossing the Ozarks, but upon reaching Illinois, I quickly realized that keeping a careful eye on the terrain was moot. I could have put Warrior 481 down just about anywhere.


Three hours out of Bolivar, I crossed the border into west central Indiana and let down toward Kentland, (50I). Though still outside of my home territory, tuning Kentland's Unicom frequency of 122.80 MHz brought forth a cacophony of radio calls from familiar places like Porter County, Knox, and Plymouth. These airports, all located in northern Indiana, shared 122.80 MHz with Three Rivers and I often heard them on the radio from home.


Although the the view outside did not look like home, the region was certainly beginning to sound like it.

The Land of Kent


I announced five miles out and inbound for landing at Kentland ("Sounds like a cool place," commented Kent when I recounted the story to him).

The Unicom operator responded to my call with a report of 16 knot winds running down the runway. That did not sound so terrible. However, I became worried as the descent brought me into very turbulent air. On final, I fought to keep the unfamiliar airplane stable on approach. The windsock swung this way and that in a gusty, directionally variable wind. A wind gust that coincided with touchdown of the main gear resulted in a skip with the airplane momentarily going airborne again. Noting that I still had plenty of runway, I leveled the nose, waited for the Warrior to sink, and flared again. This time, the airplane stayed put on the asphalt and I taxied in toward the ramp.

It was cold in Kentland, below freezing with a wind that stole my breath away. I was ill prepared for the weather after three days in balmy Oklahoma. I squirmed into a jacket, put my head down against the wind, and walked to the FBO.


The older fellow manning the FBO commented that he liked my landing. "Both of 'em," he grinned toothily.

My chariot into town was the airport courtesy car, an old Crown Vic still sporting the spotlight from its days as a police cruiser. I consumed an uninspired meal at Subway while trying to call Kristy with the cell phone. Unfortunately, all I managed to say was "I'm eating dinner at a Subway in Indiana…" when the battery died. But at least she knew I was alive.

Back at the Kentland airport, my call to the Terre Haute Flight Service Station revealed that the weather did not move out of southwest Michigan as predicted. Although the briefer told me that Kalamazoo was under IFR conditions, I could not obtain more relevant information from him. He could not or would not provide me with data from the weather reporting station in Sturgis (IRS), which is about ten miles from Three Rivers. From the traffic calls on Unicom, I knew that airports in northern Indiana were VFR. Somewhere in between these known locations of acceptable and poor weather lay my destination in Three Rivers, its weather unknown. I decided to fly as far north as I could, stopping overnight in northern Indiana if necessary. I had planned for exactly this contingency already and knew which airports were conveniently located near hotels.

I departed Kentland and pushed the airplane to climb for all it was worth to escape the low altitude turbulence. An hour later, I was just south of Elkhart (EKM), Indiana. Even this close to Three Rivers, the visibility remained excellent and I could see Elkhart's north-south runway with ease. If Three Rivers was socked-in, Elkhart would have been a good place to divert. The Class D airport was the one where I met the examiner for my private pilot checkride and, as a result, I was quite familiar with it.


"Triumphant" Homecoming


When I was finally able to receive the relatively weak ATIS broadcast out of Kalamazoo, my heart sank. Consistent with what the briefer told me back in Kentland, Kalamazoo was shrouded by low clouds and visibility was two miles in snow. When I tried the Sturgis AWOS, however, my attitude underwent a sudden reversal as I listened to a report of 10 mile visibility and clear skies. Suddenly, I realized that I could see the Monsanto plant in Constantine, within ten miles of my destination. In the distance, a dark line of ominous clouds could be seen north of Three Rivers.

Joyfully, I tossed all of the information on Elkhart over my shoulder. I was going to make it home after all.


Entering my old practice area, finally back in familiar airspace, I pulled the throttle back for a descent over Constantine. The setting sun perched on my left wingtip and I momentarily wished that I had brought a camera to capture the moment. For the first time that day, my radio call rolled out with smooth familiarity.

"Three Rivers traffic, Warrior 21481 is five to the south, inbound for two seven. Three Rivers."

I activated the pilot controlled runway lighting and made my best landing of the day on runway 27. After my longest cross country flight to date, no other runway ever looked so good as that one did that night.

N21481 on the ramp at Three Rivers after her first night in Michigan.

I was home in my new airplane! Did I expect my arrival to be announced by a trumpet fanfare? No, but I was disappointed to find the place completely deserted and locked up for the night. So much for a triumphant homecoming.

I taxied to a tie-down, now almost in complete darkness. It was much colder in Three Rivers than in central Indiana. After fighting with a pay-phone that would not accept any change, I managed to reach Kristy to ask for a ride home. I returned to the ramp and pried frozen tie-down ropes up from the asphalt. My lack of expertise in knot tying was certainly not helped by the frozen rope, but I managed to secure the airplane to my satisfaction before Kristy arrived. When she arrived, I took her by the hand and dragged her out to the ramp to see the airplane and sit in it. She indulged me with good humor.


N21481 at Three Rivers prior to annual.

The next day, John found space in his hangar and my airplane (my airplane!) spent a week waiting for its annual inspection under the same roof as my favorite Cessna 150, N9327U.

But the story of buying Warrior 481 does not end there.


The Annual


John and Greg at Three Rivers conducted a very thorough annual. In the process, they discovered that the low static RPM issue was not related to valve timing or any error in the assembly of the Warrior's O-320 powerplant. The timing appeared to be fine. Rather, the low static RPM resulted from a combination of issues. The carb heat was partially open continuously (we had observed this during the pre-buy) and the throttle did not open all the way (not noticed during the pre-buy). Both of these robbed the engine from developing maximum power.

Surprisingly, the primary source of low static RPM was a propeller pitched incorrectly! How could that be?

The Warrior is type-certified for two propeller pitches: 58" and 60". When John pulled the spinner off of the propeller's hub, it was stamped as a 62". This higher pitch made the prop more of a "cruise prop" than a "climb prop", but reduced the static RPM.

I called the Guthrie mechanic and the Prop Shop that "okayed" the propeller and discovered by interviewing them that there was some poor communication on this issue during the pre-buy inspection. The question we really needed to answer back in Guthrie was whether or not the propeller was appropriate for the airplane. Though he could have answered the question without ever removing the propeller from the airplane, the mechanic in Guthrie did not check the stamp on the prop. The Prop Shop physically measured the pitch of the blades to verify that they were consistent with the stamp and, finding this to be the case, gave it their seal of approval. The Prop Shop did not assess whether a 62" pitch was at all appropriate for the Warrior.

Just as in science, reaching truth usually requires asking the correct question.

In the course of the annual inspection, John found several other items that were missed during the pre-buy inspection. Most of them were minor. In the end, while the money I saved on the aircraft purchase price did not go toward a valve timing repair, it was still quickly consumed in the course of troubleshooting and correcting the low static RPM problem.



A New Home for an Old Warrior

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Apr 2004 N21481 HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - 0D1 (South Haven, MI) 1.0 174.6




N21481 outside my first hangar in South Haven, April 5, 2004.

On April 1, John released the airplane from annual. He grimaced as he presented me with the invoice. "First annuals can be really expensive," he commented apologetically. Yup, it was expensive. Expensive as it was, nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm.

After paying the bill, I launched from Three Rivers and turned toward South Haven, Warrior 481's new home. Though Three Rivers was my home base throughout training, there were no hangars available there. Sadly, too many of them were mausoleums filled with dust-covered airplanes on flat tires that had not taken wing in years. As John lamented, "people learn to fly here, buy their airplanes, and have to keep them somewhere else." It certainly was not great for his business.


A few weeks prior to buying Warrior 481, Dave came to the rescue by arranging for me to sublet a hangar at the South Haven Area Regional Airport (0D1). Though this was a 45 minute drive from home versus the 20 minutes to Three Rivers, South Haven was a nicer field with a much more active pilot community. In short order, I was proud to call South Haven home.

Over Lake Michigan with Kristy on April 7, 2004. Photo by Arjo.

Airplane ownership brought many challenges and learning experiences with it. The first challenge, simply, was to wrap my brain around the notion that I actually possessed my own airplane and could fly it whenever, wherever, I wanted.