As I reduced power to descend, the Lycoming out in front of the Van’s RV-6A I was flying popped in protest. It wasn’t nearly enough to scare a passenger, and it might even have slipped past other pilots with different preoccupations. A couple of clicks on the ignition switch confirmed my suspicions. The roughness was building, and these things rarely sort themselves out without some kind of intervention. I shook my head, mumbled a few select words about Airbus pilots flying around with old technology and how the two sometimes aren’t compatible. I leaned a little more aggressively and hoped to clear the offending spark plugs.
I hadn’t had to mess with mixture knobs in a very long time. Most Cubs don’t have a mixture control. The Zlin’s were locked into one position with a stern warning from a Czech mechanic who told us that there was no need for a pilot to interfere with the automatic mixture installed. My reunion with the Mooney brought a mixture of paranoia and obsession with managing the little red knob. After years of “set it and forget it,” I was having to actively manage a critical part of my engine. This RV-6A also had one of those little red knobs, and it quickly became the focus of my attention.
My friend Cameron, being a little different than most, retired north to his hometown in Michigan. He drove the moving truck and left his beautiful RV-6 behind in my care while he searched for a hangar to keep it tucked away for the grueling winter ahead. Fresh out of having a cylinder repaired, it needed to fly so the piston rings would seat. So I did a few lunch runs with the RV. Once Cameron found a place to park it, I topped it off and pointed the nose north to reunite airplane and owner.
It was a scorcher that day, well into the 90s as I climbed up to the bases of the clouds and blipped the elevator trim up and down, trying to get as close to hands-off flight as I could. With just a little tweaking on the wing leveler, I lazily chased my course line north, dodging the angrier-looking clouds along the way. The bubble canopy had me slowly baking despite a sunshade and a ballcap to battle its effects.
I was traveling light, hoping to fly home after a brief visit that afternoon. In addition to the clothes I was wearing, I had a clean shirt and underwear, a toothbrush and deodorant. This is the point where you’re welcome to start whistling a few bars from the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island.”
The plan went off the rails on descent for my halftime fuel stop and stretch break in southern Indiana, when two spark plugs decided to go on strike. The roughness got worse despite my efforts to fix it. No combination of power and leaning would clear the stumble, and by the time I started to slow in the pattern, the engine was really struggling. I glanced at the sectional chart, then out the window. Wherever I touched down, I probably wouldn’t be flying out without applying some TLC to the ailing engine. Being an A&P has its perks, but on this particular day the only tools in my possession were a fuel strainer with a screwdriver tip and a friendly face. I hoped that was enough. The airport off the left wingtip looked like a ghost town. The nearest fields on the chart showed no promise of more activity or services available. Half in jest, I reached out to press the “panic button,” a dummy fixture on the instrument panel. I said a little prayer, and hoped this was the right choice before I pulled the power, landed and shut down at the fuel pumps.
As a diesel dump truck chugged away in a cloud of black smoke, the airfield fell to silence, interrupted only by the occasional chirp of a bird. I was dog-cussing the self-serve pump as it refused to read most of my credit cards when a beautiful sound reached my ears. The ring of chrome vanadium on concrete has a particular tone known by mechanics worldwide: Someone just dropped a wrench on a hangar floor. I topped the tanks and pulled the nose into the shade of the FBO’s deserted hangar, and then went searching for an open hangar door.
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Airport geezers are like the guardian angels of flight, and my angel on this day was named Virgil. He was hunched over a BMW motorcycle, his hangar littered with toolboxes, and the centerpiece was a lovingly polished bare metal Cessna 150. We talked airplanes for a few minutes, and I got the short history of how he transformed this bird from basket case to polished beauty. He told me the struggles nobody would consider in trying to make bare metal components match on an airplane that had made a beeline to the paint booth before leaving the factory. How else would anyone know the fuselage and the cabin doors were made of different alloys?
After learning my predicament, Virgil happily loaned me a spark plug socket, ratchet and a wrench for the ignition leads. As the shade receded and the mercury soared, I removed the top cowling and started pulling spark plugs. The top plugs were a piece of cake, and per Murphy’s law, they were clean as a whistle. With hundred-degree heat on the ramp, no amount of waiting would let the engine cool to a comfortable temperature. By carefully reaching between the lower cowling and the still-hot engine, I managed to pull the lower spark plugs with only minor burns to my forearms.
The lower plugs for the first and third cylinders were to blame. The lower plug for cylinder one was heavily filled with lead deposits, and number three was oily, likely from the piston rings still seating. I sat cross-legged on the floor of Virgil’s hangar and used a tiny flat screwdriver to chisel out the deposits as we exchanged more stories. A quick shower in the stream of a fuel drain washed away the oil on the other plug. I reinstalled the plugs and leads, returned the tools, and spent several more minutes with Virgil, who’d recently completed a lap through Utah on his motorcycle, where he had visited many of the same parks Amy and I had used the Mooney to see. With both our projects nearly done, I helped Virgil ease his bike off the lift where he’d been working on it.
He told me the saga of his motorcycle’s fuel pump, how he rode for miles with it leaking a steady stream until he could get to a place to work on it. Then he detailed all the modifications he’d done, and he told me how fast it would go. In a world without radar guns, it’d give the RV-6A a run for its money. “She’ll do 135 on the runway before I get nervous and have to get on the brakes,” he said. I smiled and nodded.
I thanked him profusely and told him that I had debated the next airport to the west as an option, in hopes of finding someone with a toolbox. “Your luck there would have been even worse,” he said. Upon hearing I was headed north, he pointed out the next airport along the way that would have maintenance available in case my case of the shakes returned once airborne.
While I secured the upper cowling, Virgil fired up his bike. As I strapped in, I heard him put the spurs to her, the howl of the engine reverberating between hangars. A red-and-black flash through the gap between the runway light shack and the fuel pump was all I saw of the man and his machine. I was just about to turn the key as he pulled back onto the ramp and paused by the left wingtip. “Only 130 today,” he said with a shrug and a grin, “But what the heck? That’s enough.” He wheeled off to lunch, a meal he’d declined my offer to finance, as I taxied out.
Ninety minutes later, I was on another ramp, next to another self-serve pump, and grateful for being at my destination, where my only need was a cold soda and some air conditioning.
Every airport has a Virgil. I’m just mighty glad this particular Virgil had nowhere else to be on the day I really needed him.