Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Powered by Lycoming

American Air Power

There was a time before Lycoming Engines were synonymous with powered flight, a time before the Williamsport, PA manufacturer was even associated with the Lycoming name. The company was founded as the Demorest Manufacturing Company in 1845 and produced a variety of wares from bicycles to sewing machines that were curiously advertised as "prime favorites with the Irish population of New York and Philadelphia". In 1907, the company rebranded as the Lycoming Foundry and Machine Company and set its sights on engines that powered Auburn, Cord, and Dusenberg automobiles. Lycoming produced its first aircraft engine, a nine cylinder radial, in 1929. Over time, Lycoming shifted its business model to focus exclusively on aircraft engines. Lycoming eventually fabricated an O-320 engine with serial number L-8529-39A that was shipped to Vero Beach Florida and hung on the nose of Piper Warrior N21481 in 1978. Now carrying about 1850 hours since its third overhaul, the Lycoming powerplant is still going strong over forty years later.

Warrior 481 decowled in South Haven, MI. 17 July 2005.

We arranged a tour of Lycoming for the Williamson Flying Club, an opportunity to see how the engines powering so many of our aircraft were built. On September 17, seven aircraft carried twelve pilots to Williamsport on what turned out to be an exquisite fall day to fly.

Starter . . . . . Engage

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
17 Sep 2019 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - IPT (Williamsport, PA) - SDC 2.7 2031.5

Silence enveloping the Williamson Sodus Airport was shattered around 9:00 am that morning when three Cherokees started their O-320s.

Bogdan flew with me in Warrior 481 at 6,000 feet to Williamsport. As we flew, we talked about his Cessna Skyhawk restoration project.

True to form, the low-lying areas of New York's Southern Tier were enveloped in fog.

Crossing a ridge line of windmills in northern Pennsylvania was a definitive visual clue that Williamsport was near. With calm winds, the seven aircraft converging on Williamsport landed on three different runways before gathering on the Energy Aviation ramp.

The Gathering

While we waited for the entire group to reach Williamsport, I explored the grounds. I was intrigued by the study in contrasts presented by this FedEx Caravan hangared next to a tube and rag Taylorcraft.

Williamsport was once a common destination for us because it was home to my favorite $100 hamburger destination, Cloud 9. Unfortunately, the airport replaced the old terminal building with a new one that did not have space for a restaurant, effectively putting the successful airport restaurant out of business. I miss Cloud 9.

The club's Hawk XP started off with premier parking, but was later relegated to a back corner of the ramp. I wondered if the line crew discovered that her powerplant was a Continental — most certainly not the hometown favorite.

Most of the WFC aircraft (and one from Dansville) all lined up. 

Land Barge

Ground transportation was one of the main logistical issues that Tom, our event organizer, had to unravel. With twelve people participating, relying on Uber/Lyft would have been costly (three cars), especially considering that we needed to stop and eat before proceeding to Lycoming. When he asked the FBO for advice, they arranged for us to rent a fifteen passenger van for the day for $125. Sold!

The only tricky part about this great deal was that Tom had to drive it. He had all of our lives in his hands while at the wheel of the large vehicle.

How many engineers does it take...?

We successfully negotiated the highway and downtown Williamsport. Once parked, it quickly became evident that the biggest challenge of the day was neither flying to an out of state destination nor driving the oversized vehicle in noontime traffic, but figuring out how to use the high tech parking meter.

Lunch was at the Moon & Raven Public House. In a word, it was delicious. A beer would have gone down nicely, but there was flying to be done later in the day.

The former bank was well-appointed as a pub. The Moon & Raven gets bonus points from this Kalamazoo expatriate for the Bells banner hung above the bar.

Tom, Brad, Bogdan, me, and Bernie. Photo by Jamie

Alex's friend, Matt, Alex, John, Eric, and Rick. Photo by Jamie

Behind the Scenes

Once we were checked in at Lycoming, the security officer reminded us that there could be no photography inside or outside the facility. The assembled pilots traded puzzled glances at his mention of "outside". How do they control that?

Lycoming graciously hosted us for two hours. We began in a conference room with a company overview, then walked the floor to see the engine fabrication process from start to finish, and ended with a visit to the Lycoming museum that contained sewing machines, bicycles, automobile engines, and aircraft engines.

Although automated CNC machines are used to fabricate individual components like cylinder barrels, the assembly process is quite manual and culminates in a trio of carts for each build; a cart with the case, a cart with the cylinder assemblies, and a cart with the engine accessories. The whole manufacturing process is a fascinating hybrid of automation and hand craftsmanship.

The Lycoming XR-7755-3 on display at the Smithsonian Udvar Hazy Center, photographed May 20, 2015.

Along the way, we were reminded that Lycoming holds the record for building the most powerful reciprocating aircraft engine in the world, the XR-7755-3. The thirty-six cylinder radial was built from nine banks of four cylinders and produced 5,000 horsepower at 2,600 rpm. Only two of these complex engines were ever made, victims of turbine-assisted obsolescence.

Posted in multiple places throughout the facility was the mantra "build every engine as though you were going to fly it yourself". This is so ingrained in the corporate culture that the company even has its own flying club with -- naturally -- Lycoming powered aircraft.

It was an interesting and informative tour and we are thankful to Lycoming for hosting us.

Photo by Ryan from Lycoming

At the conclusion of the tour, our guide Ryan cajoled security into allowing an exterior group photo. Considering how much convincing this outside photo required, I was astounded when the Williamson Flying Club was tagged a day later on Facebook by Lycoming with scenes from our tour. None of us realized that the photos were being taken at the time. I wonder how much vetting they required?

Photo by Lycoming

Photo by Lycoming

Photo by Lycoming

Photo by Lycoming

Reliable Power

After the tour, we returned to the Williamsport Regional Airport where our airplanes -- three Cherokees, one Cirrus, one Skyhawk, one Cessna 170, and one Skylane -- were waiting to carry us home.

John's C-170, Brad's Cirrus, Warrior 481, Five Five Whiskey, and One Delta Tango.

As Warrior 481's 160 horsepower Lycoming pulled us smoothly homeward, I contemplated its reliability. Since it was last overhauled, I estimate that the Warrior's powerplant has run at nearly continuous 75% power output for over 230,000 miles [(110 nautical miles / hour) x 1850 hours x (1.15 statute miles / nautical mile)]. Considering that the O-320 was first certified in 1952, that is really impressive.

Lycoming makes a good engine.