As I’m writing this, a shuttle bus is taking me a hundred miles north to meet a new friend (I hope): the freshly overhauled Lyc IO-360-A1A that’s snuggled under the cowling of Eight Papa Bravo and is waiting for me to pick her up and bring her home. It has been a long time since I’ve done the new engine thing. I feel as if I’m going on a first date after just getting divorced. I’m not really cheating on the old one, am I?
Although airplane engines are theoretically mechanical beings, that’s not entirely true. Not if you live with one for its entire life, it’s not. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to overhaul my last engine. The feeling has nothing to do with costs (well…maybe a little), but does have a lot to do with the huge confidence factor that long-term familiarity breeds. I knew every single sound and vibration that engine had in its soul, and now I have to start the process all over again.
The last engine was unbelievable. It went 2,200 hours on a TBO of 1,400 hours and still had 76/80 on all four holes and burned only one quart every 12 to 14 hours. There was absolutely nothing about the engine that said I should overhaul it—other than some numbers on the face of a tachometer. But something inside me said I was risking too much by not doing it soon... So, I did it.
Mattituck (www.mattituck.com) does my overhauls and all have lasted as well as the previous one. Amazing! So, I entrusted my engine and, by extension, my butt to them again. And today I start the 15-hour break-in procedure (lots and lots of droning around) in anticipation of a new student showing up in a couple of days. It’s going to be several long, sweaty days.
Later That Same Day...
Well, I met her. And I have to admit that there’s something different going on here. It’s probably part of the first-date thing I mentioned. For one thing, her starter vaguely bothers me because it meshes with a gritty feel, like the sand-filled tracks of a bulldozer going around: I hadn’t noticed that my old engine sounded so smooth on startup because thousands of starts had worn the edges smooth, and the Bendix and ring gear meshed like the internal workings of a fine target pistol—fluid and purposeful.
There’s also something different about her voice. It has a flat, raspy edge to it, like a cabaret singer who has spent too many decades leaning against too many pianos in too many smoky dives, cigarette in hand. Not unpleasant, just different. The tune being sung is still old-school Lycoming rock and roll, but for some strange reason, this engine interprets it differently. The snarl comes out sounding the same, but different. It’s hard to explain.
I don’t remember this kind of emotional reaction to my last engine when Mattituck delivered it. That, however, was nearly seven years ago, and the engine it was replacing came with the airplane and had never been a happy motor. I never really trusted it, so I never bonded with it. On the other hand, 2,200 hours of putting your life on the line with the same antigravity machine creates more than a bond. It becomes part of your life, and you sense, more than hear or feel, when it’s not feeling well. You instantaneously know when a hesitation in its gait means something is serious and not just a bit of indigestion. You develop a way of connecting with it that goes beyond vibrations and sounds.
The Next Evening...
I flew six hops today for a total of 7.4 hours with the OAT hovering around 108 degrees (August in the desert, argh!). I’m up to just under 12 hours, so I’m closing in on it, but I’ve decided that breaking in a new engine is second only to housebreaking a new puppy in terms of the commitment and minor aggravations both endeavors entail. Once the process begins, you can’t turn your back on it for a second, or it won’t work out. To make matters worse, both endeavors are greatly complicated and rushed when we know company’s coming—everything has to be just right. In this case, I’ll be flying a new student tomorrow and I need a complete and functional airplane to strap him into.
The first couple of hours spent circling over the airport waiting for sheets of flame and bent metal to cascade back from the nose (did I mention that I’m a born-again pessimist?) were terminally boring. After that, however, as the motor and I began to make friends and I ventured further afield, it became a form of masochistic fun, even though my body felt as if it was being slowly dried into beef jerky. That much time in a fish-bowl canopy in August in any state, much less Arizona, is going to cook you. Even so, I got to poke my nose into places in my local area I’d always wanted to investigate but never could.
About three hours into the marathon, I realized that I had just been handed a new reason to live, or maybe another way to measure a life span: if the trend continues, I have a minimum of two, and probably three, more engines left in me. And I’m even looking forward to breaking them in.
The new rubber band and I are going to be just fine, because on the way home, I received a sure sign that all will be well. Just as I dropped over the edge of the last mesa on my usual path home, I happened to glance down at a collection of small buttes I’ve looked at a thousand times. This time, however, the low sun laid hard shadows around an incredibly precise, little Indian ruin I had never seen before, making it jump out at me as if to say, “The gods wanted you to see this. Everything is going to be okay.” I couldn’t help but smile, and my new friend and I headed for home.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.