It’s not quite the same as your doctor calling to say that you have medical problems, but hearing your mechanic say your aerial baby’s oil analysis shows abnormal levels of iron and silica (?) does get your immediate attention.
I’ve known for a while my engine wasn’t totally happy. Although the compressions are all above 76 and it’s burning one quart in nine hours, a daddy knows things. We sense when something’s not quite right. That’s why I had mechanics crawl through it a couple months ago, poking and prodding to see if I could squeeze another 300 hours out of it. They said I was good to go. This was August, and August is when I change engines. Not every August, although sometimes it feels that way: This will be the fourth engine in this airframe since I bought it in ’93. If I could safely make it to next August, it would give me that much more time to sock away that more long green. Alas, that wasn’t to be.
Why August? Because out here in the desert, we live on a reversed calendar. I don’t fly that much during the summer, but December through April I’m seldom on the ground. Last March was 80+ hours!
I hate this new-engine process. Positively hate it because it screws with the mechanical relationships on which my days depend.
I’m assuming that when most people push the mixture forward and twist the key, they view it as if they’re simply doing something mechanical. Technically, they are. They follow procedures and push this button, toggle that switch and, when they’re rewarded with noise from under the hood, that’s that. However, for me, every time I worm my way down into the cockpit and get ready to fire up, I feel as if I’m stepping into the stall where my mount is curled up in the hay, not even raising its eyes to welcome me. I’m going to have to wake it up, and I want to do so as gently and as humanly as possible. This is, after all, the four-cylinder organ on which my airplane, my life and the happiness of my friends and family depend. It’s the heart of the creature with which I spend more time than any other in my existence.
After so many hours with the same motor, 2,200-plus in this case, if a person has a mechanical bone in his body, he forms a relationship with his airplane and his motor that’s far more than simply operator and machine. Far more. You get to where you relate to it as you do your dog (you do have a dog, don’t you?), and words aren’t necessary. The look in the eyes. The movement (or non-movement) of the tail. The body language all tell you when it’s time to see the vet. Same thing with your engine. You just “know.”
After so many hours, you don’t need a mechanic to tell you something’s going wrong. You can sense it. Everything about the way it pulses through your body once it’s running tells you more than any mechanic can. Yeah, sometimes, when smoke is boiling from under the cowling or there’s a glaring silence up front, people blocks away can also make an accurate diagnosis of your motor. But, when it comes to the subtle things, the general state of its health and its attitude toward life in general, no one’s better than you at catching the clues.
And then comes the time that you’ve put off as long as you can: After surviving the trauma of writing the check for the overhaul, you find yourself astride what appears to be the same steed, but definitely isn’t. You’re feeling, hearing and smelling a total stranger. The heart that has been transplanted into your friend carries with it new personality traits and seems to speak in a different dialect.
As with the initial meeting with any stranger, you circle around one another while seeking out common ground. People have to prove themselves to one another before they can be friends. A new motor has to do the same before it has my trust.
So, sometime next week, after we finish grafting the new organ into place with all-new plumbing and a fresh prop, I’m going to go introduce myself to it. In the discussions that follow, I’m going to be the most attentive listener on the planet. I’ve done this a bunch of times before, and it’s always a grueling chore because I’m so keyed up: I’ve never been good around strangers, and I’m terribly introspective. Watching what I say or do. So, in this case, I’m going to be right there, ear to the cowling (figuratively, not literally), listening to everything it says. Feeling its every breath and heartbeat.
First we’ll tip-toe off the runway, me expecting a total failure any second, and climb up overhead. We’ll circle for a few minutes, then bring it back down to the hospital to be checked for hemorrhages or other signs something’s not right. Then a couple of one-hour flights over the airport. In for more checks. Then we’ll cautiously work our way out to the practice area while the two of us, the engine and I, begin to feel each other out for five hours or so. Back for another quick check, an oil transfusion, and we’re off on that long road labeled “break in.” I’ll fly it five hours a day (that’s three fuel stops) for a week, and then it’s time to put her to work with her first student.
It takes a while to gain my trust. But I’m willing to put in the requisite time and work on the relationship. After all, we’re going to share our lives for another 2,200 hours and around six years. A lot of marriages don’t last that long. This one will.