Tuesday, November 6, 2012

...There's Ire (Part II)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
6 Nov 2012 N21481 1B1 (Hudson, NY) - 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) 2.0 1100.4

Rescue at 85 Knots

Gently conveyed over a post-autumnal landscape by a smoothly purring 90 horsepower Continental, I pointed my camera outside and happily snapped photographs. For the first time in days, the gray gloom dissipated and a long absent sun drew forth brilliant colors from the terrain below. It was a tight fit for me in the back of Ed's 1957 Aeronca 7FC Tri-Champ, but it was a wonderfully idyllic journey. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than riding in the back seat of a well-maintained vintage airplane.

On October 22, Darrell and I experienced an induction system fire while starting the Warrior at Columbia County Airport (1B1) in southeast New York.  Fortunately, the fire proved to be mostly a non-issue and I was grateful - initially - that it happened on a field with a maintenance shop.

The repair plan was for my regular shop, Boshart Enterprises, to fix the carburetor heat airbox damaged in the fire and send it to Columbia County Airport for installation.  I was keen to recover the airplane before Hurricane Sandy made landfall.  Plan A was to fly the airbox down on Friday October 26, wait for it to be installed, then fly the airplane home.  Dan agreed to fly me down in his RV-7A.  Unfortunately, completion of the airbox repair took longer than I anticipated and the actual weather was not nearly so promising as the forecast, so I scrubbed the mission.  On the bright side, this meant that I was able to spend part of my morning at The Bear's school listening to the teachers there extol her virtues; not a bad trade at all.

I was assured that my airplane would remain safely inside during Sandy's landfall.  "We would never store an airplane outside while it is taken apart."  Awesome.  Sandy visited her considerable wrath on the eastern seaboard on Monday, knocking out  power as far away as my hometown north of Detroit.

On Tuesday, October 30, I received a voicemail from the shop in Columbia County stating that the airbox was reinstalled and that all was well.  Bill did not indicate anything about a collapsed hangar, flooding, or any damage to my airplane, contrary to the disaster-movie-caliber worst case scenarios I had imagined all week.  Knowledge that my Warrior survived Hurricane Sandy unscathed brought me a tremendous amount of relief.

Dissatisfied Customer

The very next day, Mike called from Columbia County.  "Hey guy, I just wanted to let you know that we think your starter is fried.  We couldn't get your airplane to start and I wanted to let you know because your bill is getting kind of high with labor and $50 a night hangar storage."

It was like a double punch to the gut.  I paused for a moment to keep from sputtering, purposefully focusing my thoughts on the most important issue first: the starter.  I questioned Mike about his diagnosis of the starter failure. A damaged starter struck me as a reasonable possibility.  I had cranked for a long time to ensure that the induction system fire was sucked back into the engine.  But was he sure that the starter was actually fried?  The data supporting his diagnosis were a bit soft.

When that conversational thread ended, I switched immediately to his mention of the previously undisclosed "storage fee", a concept that I found to be utterly flabbergasting from a maintenance shop.  "So, please help me understand...my airplane was in pieces and under your care for maintenance and you're charging me a storage fee?  Really?"

To his credit, Mike backpedaled.  "Well, you've been in there for nine days, but we can probably have that knocked down and just charge you for four."

Gee, thanks.

I hung up the phone, annoyed, and sat quietly for a moment as waves of frustration washed over me.  The fire, a week of worrying about my airplane abandoned in the path of the much ballyhooed "Frankenstorm", my frustration with the unhelpful and expensive shop in Columbia County, and even broader concerns about fuel prices and access to airspace all came together in a mountain of despair.  For the first time since buying Warrior 481 in April 2004, I seriously wondered if all the effort and expense were really worth it anymore.

I called my regular mechanic, Jim, and explained the situation.  Dubious that the starter was actually damaged, he provided some troubleshooting procedures that should take no more than a few minutes to try.  I relayed these to Mike, but he seemed uninterested in trying them.

Several hours later, I received another call from Mike explaining that the starter was fine and that the problem was, in fact, a weak battery.  This was also not a surprising outcome given the load I placed on it with all that fruitless cranking a week earlier.  I could not help but wonder why it took so long for a professional aircraft repair station to differentiate a battery problem from a bad starter.  Mike promised to charge the battery before I picked up the airplane.

"Do you want us to store the airplane inside or outside?" he asked me.  Still galled by the hidden storage fee, I pulled up the Weather Channel webpage, verified that no significant adverse weather was forecast for the region, and told him to tie it down outside.

Curses, Foiled Again...And Again...

I went back to watching for a suitable weather window.  For several days in a row, forecasts of sun would persist until late in the preceding day, then jump to the next day.  And then, the next.  Suitable weather remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Plan B was for Darrell and I to fly down Sunday, November 4.  I would be safety pilot for Darrell on the way down and Ed B would ride along to serve as Darrell's safety pilot on the return flight.  I called my friends in Groton and arranged another lunch gathering.  Sunday dawned dark and dreary in outright defiance of the forecast.  I cancelled with my friends again, feeling a bit like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, and pushed the rescue mission to Monday.

Plan C, Monday, withered on the vine as Darrell, Ed, Darrell's youngest son, and I sat in the Le Roy terminal building watching snow - unforecast, dreadful snow - fall for half the day.  At 1:00 pm, I stood up, looked outside at the light snow and said, "ok, we're done, here.  How about tomorrow?" 

Darrell had to work on Tuesday, but Ed is retired and was happy to volunteer his time and airplane to the cause.  Plan D was born.

I left the airport and drove to Boshart Enterprises to thank Jim personally for all of his help.  I was reminded of Cheers as I stepped onto the shop floor.  Everyone welcomed me by name and asked if I had the airplane back home yet.  They all knew the tale of what had happened.  As I shook Jim's hand in thanks, he noted that he didn't charge me any labor on the airbox repair, saying "you're getting raked over the coals enough by those other guys."

Plan D

Ed is a wonderful, outgoing fellow with a booming voice and friendly manner who dearly loves flying his Champ around the local area.  Every year at the Geneseo Airshow ("The Greatest Show on Turf"), Ed flies the Tri-Champ during the flight of L-birds.  I do not know where the expression "pleased as punch" comes from, but when I hear it, I always picture the grin on Ed's face when he talks about flying in that airshow every year.

Sitting behind Ed in the Tri-Champ, I was reminded of years past and flying with Dave in his Super Decathlon.  My last flight in the Decathlon was in 2004 when Dave flew me to Muskegon, MI to retrieve the Warrior after an avionics repair.

The iFly 700 GPS on Ed's instrument panel, looking out of place amidst a collection of analog 1950s era instruments, indicated an average ground speed of 77 knots.  In level flight, the Champ showed an indicated airspeed of 85.  Our flight time to Columbia County would be close to three hours.

Downtown Canandaigua, NY

It is unusual for Ed to fly very high or far away from home.  Though well within his capability, our mission was a bit outside his typical operations envelope.  We skimmed low over Canandaigua on a southeast course.  Ed commented apologetically that we would not reach our destination very quickly and I explained that I was perfectly content to just ride along and look out the window.  It was a beautiful day.

"You're like me, then," he responded, adding how much fun he was having acting as safety pilot for Darrell.

Our course took us across most of the larger Finger Lakes, starting with Canandaigua.

Looking out the window, I saw an outdoor amphitheater that was easily identifiable as CMAC (it did not hurt that we were low enough for me to read "CMAC" on the side of the building).  Kristy and I went there with friends earlier this year to see Sarah McLachlan perform with backup from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Though we watched snow descend on Le Roy Monday morning, portions of the landscape still retained their harvest colors.

To our mutual delight, the sky cleared almost completely by the time we reached Seneca Lake.

As we crossed the massive lake near the north end, I asked Ed about how he came to buy the unusual Tri-Champ.  He responded that he bought it from an elderly pilot who had only racked up single digit hours annually for several years.

Holy corrosion, Batman!  "Yikes!  What was the condition of the engine when you bought it?"

Ed chuckled and told me that, in his first year of ownership, one of the pistons broke and the engine lost power.  He managed to land at his home airport without putting a scratch on the airplane, but it was a sudden plunge into the deep end of the airplane maintenance pool for him.  However, the incident occurred many years ago and, as we flew over the narrow lake, the rebuilt engine did not so much as hiccup.

A few minutes later we crossed Cayuga Lake which is The Bear's favorite Finger Lake.  "Because the name sounds like the noise made by an old-timey car horn," I explained.

Our flight path took us south of Owasco Lake.  By then, we were cruising at 4000 feet, unusually high for Ed and the Tri-Champ.

"Doesn't look like any summer camp I'd care to visit," I commented to Ed as we flew over the Cayuga Correctional Facility.  He agreed completely.

Harbingers of winter could be seen from miles away; a white rectangle here, frosted pine trees there.  Monday's snow still clung to the higher elevations south of Syracuse.

At times, neither Ed nor I spoke, both of us surveying the countryside.  During the silence, I worried about the condition of my airplane.  Would the engine be warm enough to start after sitting outside overnight?  Would it have hangar rash?  Did they even bother to lock it after pushing it outside?  Sadly, these dour thoughts were brought on by my lack of trust in the crew at Columbia County.

From the back seat of the Champ, I monitored our progress against visual waypoints.  As we crossed I-81, I knew that we were due south of Syracuse.

In time, the Catskill Mountains came into view, their peaks shrouded in light afternoon haze.

We passed north of the Catskills, avoiding turbulence from the northwesterly winds.

Crossing the Hudson River, we found ourselves in the home stretch.

Over the town of Hudson, we both struggled to locate the airport.  I saw it first, a single nondescript runway surrounded by trees that angled across the landscape.


Ed rolled his Champ onto the runway with graceful aplomb.

"Nice,"I complimented.

"Eh, I've seen better," responded Ed.  I smiled as I realized that I say nearly the same thing when complimented on a landing.

I found the Warrior tied down on a far corner of the ramp. A quick inspection found it to be dirty (from weather and greasy handprints) and unlocked, though nothing appeared to be missing from inside.  Opening the cowl, I discovered a foot-long white zip tie left lying on top of the engine.  Sloppy.  As part of a rigorous pre-flight inspection, I went over every screw in the cowling and all the airbox connections before satisfying myself that the airplane was ready to fly.

Inside the terminal building, another transient aviator pointed to Ed's airplane.  "Can you explain that to me?" he asked.  I grinned, explaining that it was a 1957 Tri-Champ, one of roughly 411 built (per Ed, Wikipedia claims 472) by Aerona with factory installed tricycle gear.

"Ed thinks that there are only about 17 of them still flying, so it's a relatively rare airplane," I added.

The grandmotherly woman at the counter handed me an envelope with my keys, logbook stickers, and invoice.  The total bill, which included eight hours of labor and five (not four) days of "hangar rent" was three times higher than what Jim had charged to rebuild the airbox and just shy of a four digit figure.

I grit my teeth and paid the bill, hoping to never have a mechanical issue in a high rent district ever again.

I helped Ed fuel his Champ, which burned a miserly ten gallons during our nearly three hour flight to Columbia County.

I was happy to find that the Warrior's engine had warmed to 45°F under the bright sun.  I predicted that a cold start would not be an issue and, indeed, the engine cranked right over and ran smoothly.

I took off from Columbia County and turned toward a line of mountains submerged below the haze layer.  Ed had a fifteen minute head start on me.   I looked for him along the GPS-direct course to Le Roy, hoping to at least get an aerial photo of his beloved tube and rag Champ, but never saw him (nor he me).

I settled in for the cruise home at 6500 feet with a ground speed of 115 knots.  It felt good to be back in the air and especially good to be back in my airplane.  I scanned the familiar panel and took comfort in the array of needles and instruments all indicating where they should.

The return flight took two hours with the sun setting while I was over Canandaigua Lake.  Immediately after I broadcast that I was five miles southeast of Le Roy, I heard Ed's voice on the radio.

"All right, Chris!"  Ed broadcast in a gruffly jubilant tone.  It was good to have my airplane home after the fire, the hurricane, and the frustrating maintenance experience.

"I'm right over the middle of Seneca Lake showing 45 minutes to Le Roy," Ed added.  

After landing, I did some minor work on the airplane (cleaning, winterization) as I waited for Ed to land.  Ed flies often at night and I was not particularly concerned about him, but nonetheless did not want to leave without knowing that he was back safely.

"That was a long flight," Ed said to me and Ray in the Le Roy terminal building as he sank into a chair.  "It was so smooth out there that, without anyone to talk to, I almost fell asleep!"  The twinkle in his eye suggested otherwise; he had loved every minute of it and would happily do it again.


One of the greatest things about the general aviation community is the way that aviators help each other.  Darrell, Ed B, Ed V, and Dan from Le Roy have all helped when I needed to retrieve my airplane from some other location.  At times in the past two weeks, I had more offers for help than I could actually use!  Likewise, I have flown others over the years to retrieve their airplanes.  This experience truly reinforced that notion of community for me. 

This spirit of community also extends to the mechanics I have worked with in the past.  John (Three Rivers, MI), Allen (South Haven, MI), everyone at Boshart Enterprises (Batavia, NY), and "Helicopter Ray" (Williamson, NY) have all provided prudent care of my airplane and sage advice.  With this past experience, perhaps it is not surprising that I was unprepared for a shop operating in a less benevolent mode.  

I suspect that the greatest difference between the shop on the field at Columbia County and the other shops in my experience is clientele.  The other mechanics focus on predominantly single engine piston aircraft and understand the delicate balance between running a profitable business and doing what they can to keep airplanes flying affordably and safely.  After all, if owners cannot afford to fly their airplanes, the maintenance business will cease to exist.  Columbia County, however, specializes in large turbine aircraft that operate on budgets inconceivable to owners like me.  I imagine that the economics of servicing private jet aircraft combined with the more onerous Part 135 regulations result in a very different operational model for a shop.

For me, the lesson is this: woe upon the owner of a lowly piston aircraft that breaks down in kerosene-burner territory.


  1. Sounds like it was a fun ride out, I'm sure you could have used that ride to calm down after dealing with the repair facility (highway robbers). What an ordeal, I'm glad 481 is home safe.

    I think about the potential "away from home" repairs all the time. At annual I do extra things that are still in perfect working order but that I want to update just for this reason.
    I know, it's not a guarantee that problems won't surface but at least it makes me feel better.

    I'm sure 481 is much happier back in her own hangar too!!

    1. It was a terrific ride out - I don't get to be a passenger very often.

      I figured that this experience would resonate with you, Gary. After hearing the story, someone I know who runs a maintenance facility shook their head and said, "you just don't treat people who are stranded like that."

      Yup, I, 481, and my wallet are all happier that's she's back in her own hangar. It's supposed to be in the 60's tomorrow...I think I'll give her a bath.

  2. What an adventure. Glad that's all's well in 481's world again.

    A couple thoughts...

    - Clearly I know exactly where I'll take my plane (if I ever buy one) if I'm in the Rochester area. Jim's a stand-up guy for sure.

    - If people wonder why GA is seen as dying, they need to look no further than the other shop. Folks like that (and FBOs with similar attitudes) aren't helping any of us.

    - Love your daughter's reasoning for loving Cayuga Lake! ;-)

    1. Well, as I said...I think it's all a matter of sandboxes. If I was a turbine guy, I'm sure I would have been fine there. But I broke down in the wrong sandbox.

    2. For sure. I'm certain they cater to at least one market very well. Still, as Gary said, you'd hope any place would take care of you when something happens away from home.

  3. I know the "high-rent" district left a bad taste in your mouth, but keep in mind opposite end of the spectrum is not that great either. The unattended airport. I had a flat in a Pitts once at Limon, CO. The tire came off the rim and got jammed up under the MLG fairing. Airplane stuck on the runway, sun going down soon, and the runway had lights. Nobody for miles around to help move the airplane. It was really stressful, and I learned to plan XC flights with an eye toward more than just the cheapest fuel. :)

    1. Very valid point, Ron. That was, in fact, my initial reaction to the situation. "Thank goodness I had a problem somewhere with a shop". In my specific situation, I was close enough to home that help would have come to me had I needed it. Certainly, in cases of longer trips over potentially desolate areas, that won't be the case and being stranded in the middle of nowhere would not be remotely (awful pun intended) fun.

      So, how did you get out of your situation?