Air Adventure

Douglas Holub

Winner 2019 Travel Contest

© Copyright 2019 by Douglas Holub

Photo of Doug's airplane--Velocity N2980W.
Photo of his airplane by the author.

Did I ever tell you about the time my single engine airplane started sputtering while my wife and I were at 10,000 feet over the Rocky Mountains? No? It’s a pretty good story…..

I built this airplane myself. It was just a collection of fiberglass and aluminum parts when I purchased the Velocity kit in 2000. After years of blood, sweat, and money, it flew for the first time in February 2009. And, boy, could it fly! It had a top speed of 200 mph, four seats, 1000 mile range, engine in the back, and a little wing called a “canard” in the front. Velocity N2980W was the project of a lifetime, and my pride and joy.

I flew the plane for about 50 hours during the first few months after its first flight. During that time I discovered a few things here and there that needed fixing or improving, but by summer it was ready for prime time. It was ready for my wife Susie and me to fly it from our home in Dallas, Texas to visit my sister Dorcas in Spokane, Washington.

Planning the trip is half the fun. I got out all the relevant charts, plotted courses, planned fuel stops, and set our itinerary. It would take two easy days of flying to reach Spokane. On the first day, we stopped for fuel and lunch in Garden City, Kansas, then flew on to Sydney, Nebraska where we spent the night. The next morning we were anxious to get going. So, in lieu of breakfast, we each just grabbed a muffin and a banana to hold us over until we would stop for fuel and lunch in Laurel, Montana.

We arrived in Laurel around noon, but were disappointed to find that there was no restaurant at the airport, only some vending machines with snacks. Since we were only two and a half hours from Spokane, we decided to wait until we got there to eat lunch. Big mistake, but who knew? Then we took off from the Laurel airport on what should have been our journey’s last leg.

There’s not much to do in my airplane on a long cross country trip. The plane has an autopilot which is connected to the onboard GPS so that the plane automatically stays on course. We mostly just enjoy the scenery, but I also keep an eye on the engine gauges. The plane has instruments that monitor oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder head temperatures, exhaust temperatures, battery voltage, etc. I also adjust the air/fuel mixture while flying to keep the cylinders firing in a state known as “lean of peak” which results in cooler cylinder head temperatures and better fuel economy.

On this particular leg, every ten minutes or so I would push the mixture control in a little to keep the cylinders firing optimally. I didn’t think much about it. I often do this. But after about an hour, I went to push the mixture control knob in just a little bit again, and it wouldn’t move. It was already pushed in as far as it would go, which is the full rich position. That wasn’t right. On a hot summer day at 10,500 feet above sea level, there’s no way the engine could be running full rich and still be firing lean of peak.

Something was wrong, but there was no emergency. The engine was running just fine. Maybe the linkage to the mixture control was getting loose. As a precaution, I decided to land at the next airport and check it out. The next airport was about 5 miles northeast of Anaconda, Montana. Our route through the Rocky Mountains followed a string of small airports, each about 20 minutes apart.

To land at an unfamiliar airport, it is necessary to learn some things about it, such as the field elevation, the compass heading of the runway(s), the radio frequencies in use, etc. It takes time to look up that information on the charts and in the airport directory. Before I was finished looking them up, we had already flown past the airport. No problem. We would fly to the next airport. I was kind of glad we weren’t going to land at Anaconda, anyway, because the directory noted that the airport was “unattended”, and I thought that we might need some help if repairs were necessary.

No sooner do I decide to continue on to the next airport when our engine begins to cough and sputter as if it is about to die. Whoa. Heart in my throat. There’s no place for an emergency landing when all you can see for miles in any direction are pine trees. I immediately decide to circle back to the Anaconda airport, since it is the closest. As I pull back the power to begin our descent, the engine stops sputtering. But for how long? I’ve only got half power and I’m landing at an unfamiliar airport. I toss the chart to Susie in the back seat and ask her what the field elevation is at the Anaconda airport.

Keep in mind that Susie is a little stressed at this point. She’s heard the engine sputtering, and she sees that we’re flying over treacherous terrain where an off field landing means certain death. It would have been nice to know what the field elevation was at the Anaconda airport. Knowing the field elevation lets a pilot establish a standard landing pattern altitude so that he can make a standard landing. It would have been nice to know, but, apparently, Susie thought that if she couldn’t figure out what the field elevation was, we were going to die. Because after three minutes of frantic paper rustling in the back seat, Susie throws the chart back to me in the front seat and wails in a shrill soprano, “I don’t know what the field elevation is!”

I don’t have time to look up the field elevation. I have the airport in sight and am half gliding on half power as I enter the landing pattern. I eyeball the runway and make a guess about how high I am above it. All the time I’m expecting the engine to quit at any second. On final approach I try to slow the airplane down, but it won’t slow down. I’m flying too fast to land, and I can’t slow the airplane down. I later learn that the field elevation at the Anaconda airport is 5034 feet above sea level. The air is pretty thin up that high, and I have a very slippery, streamlined airplane. So I don’t land. I add a little power, climb, and go around again to attempt another landing.

And I’m glad I did. Because, as I’m flying about halfway down this immense runway, I see a bunch of construction equipment, bulldozers and backhoes, parked right on the runway! They were roped off with red tape, and there was room for a plane to taxi around them, but I was glad to get a good look at them before I landed.

I was prepared for the thin air on the second try and landed safely. We taxied to the tarmac and shut down the engine. Whew! It was good to be on the ground! The relief we felt was palpable. I once asked a professional pilot what it was like to fly for a living. He described his job as, “Months of boredom, punctuated by seconds of terror.” I know what he means.

But our adventure wasn’t over. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken airplane at a deserted airport, miles from civilization, with no cell phone service. The summer afternoon sun was beating down on the black asphalt tarmac. We were hot, thirsty, hungry, and a little drained after running on adrenaline for the past twenty minutes.

Using a small tool box I brought along for emergencies, I removed the engine cowling and inspected the mechanical linkages of the mixture control. No problem. Solid as a rock. I looked for anything else that might cause the engine to sputter. Nothing. But I know I’m not thinking very clearly. My blood sugar is low. I’m hot. I’m dehydrating. And the excitement of the emergency landing has worn me out a little.

Susie. I’m hungry and thirsty. What have we got?”

Nothing. Except I’ve got a bag of pretzels I was going to give your sister.” Susie is from Pennsylvania, and she often gives Pennsylvania pretzels as presents.

That won’t work. That would be like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty. The salt on the pretzels will just make us thirstier.”

If you knew Susie you would appreciate this. She’s always very helpful. She responds, “I could pick the salt off the pretzels with a pair of tweezers.”

Yes, she could. And she does. She climbs back into the plane and starts de-salting the pretzels.

While she’s doing that, I set out to explore the airport. There are a handful of old metal buildings adjacent to the runway. I walk between two of them and spot a garden hose attached to a spigot. I turn the handle and water comes out! I let it run for a while because I figure the water had been sitting in that hose for a long time, and then I take a long, cold drink of delicious water. There’s grass growing between the buildings, and one side of a building is in the shade. So I sit down on the grass and lean my back against the building in the shade and relax and cool down and re-hydrate. About that time, Susie shows up with the de-salted pretzels and we enjoy a refreshing feast of unsalted pretzels and cold water in the cool shade.

Well, that did it. After 30 minutes of eating and drinking and relaxing, my brain started working again. Why did I need to continually enrichen the fuel mixture? Why did the engine stop sputtering when I pulled back the power? Aha! A light goes on in my head. Fuel filter! If the fuel filter was clogged, those would be the symptoms.

I hustled back to the plane and inspected the fuel filter. Sure enough, it was clogged up with fiberglass dust. The fuel filter is a mesh cylindrical screen inside a clear glass tube which can be easily inspected. I inspect it before every flight, and when I inspected it that morning in Nebraska, there was no debris in it. Then I remembered that we experienced a lot of turbulence while flying through Wyoming that morning. It was more bouncing around than that plane had ever experienced. I suspect that fuel was splashing up inside the fuel tanks into nooks and crannies where it had never splashed before, and in the process had washed down some fiberglass dust left over from the initial construction of the fiberglass fuel tanks. Whatever the reason, the fuel filter was clogged. Fortunately, that particular fuel filter is designed to be disassembled and cleaned. Susie loaned me her toothbrush, and I cleaned the fuel filter. Woo hoo! Mystery solved and problem resolved!

When I tell this story, I often leave out this next part because it is a little embarrassing. After all, I built the airplane. But, what the heck? Here it is: I noticed when I removed the engine cowl that the starter motor was barely hanging on by only two loose bolts. The third bolt was missing. (I later found it lying in the bottom of the engine cowl.) I can’t explain why those bolts came loose. They had the standard lock washers installed. Whatever the reason, I doubt that we would have made it to Spokane with that starter motor. If it had come loose during flight and been sucked through the carbon fiber propeller, I doubt that I would be alive to write this story.

I attempted to reinstall the starter motor but found that it wouldn’t fit because a gasket which normally provides some essential spacing had also fallen off. The starter motor gear would not engage the engine’s flywheel correctly without that gasket.

I might have been able to come up with some kind of temporary makeshift gasket, but it was already getting to be late afternoon, and I didn’t want to fly over the mountains after dark. So we decided that we wouldn’t be flying on to Spokane that day. We resigned ourselves to spending a cold night with our stomachs growling, trying to sleep and keep warm in a cramped cockpit. It gets cold in the mountains at night, even in the summer.

About this time, an old, white haired man with a white beard and walking on crutches called out from behind the chain link fence that surrounded the airport, “Hey! Do you know the combination to the emergency pilot shack?”

I thought he was asking for help. I hollered back, “No! Sorry! We just got here!”

It’s 1215! There’s a shower and a phone and a computer in there, and a couch you can sleep on!”

We never saw that old man drive up to the airport, and we never saw him leave. We never got his name. To this day, Susie swears it was an angel from God. We walked over to the old metal building near the tarmac and punched in 1215 on the lock on the door. Voila! Civilization! It was a simple, clean room with a couch and a table and a desk and a linoleum tile floor, but to us it seemed like the Hilton. Air conditioning! We saw a refrigerator and opened it up. Orange juice! The desk in the corner had a computer and a telephone, and then Susie had the best idea of the day. “I wonder if we could order pizza?”

Why, yes we could. Susie found a Pizza Hut in the yellow pages.

While Susie was doing that, I began hunting for gasket materials, and I found some: Two Coke cans in the wastebasket and a stack of old flying magazines with heavy, slick covers. I could make a gasket sandwich of thin aluminum on the outside and layers of slick magazine covers on the inside. But the shape of the gasket was intricate, and I was having an awful time trying to fabricate it with the crude pair of diagonal cutters I had in my tool box. So while Susie was talking to Pizza Hut, I asked her to hand me the phone.

Hi. This is Doug Holub. We’re stranded out here at the airport.”

Yeah. I know. Your wife told me.”

I need a pair of scissors. It would be worth ten bucks to me if you could bring a pair of scissors with you along with the pizza.”

Well… I don’t know. I don’t know if we have any around here.”

Ok. Well, if you do, I would sure appreciate it.”

Pizza Hut came through. We had all the pizza we could eat, and a pair of scissors for the gasket. We slept soundly on the couch that night, and the next day I was able to fabricate a fine gasket that would take us to Spokane to see my sister, to Seattle to visit my mother, and back home to Texas, safe and sound.

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