Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Powered by Red Bull and held on by Four Bolts

Wow. Exciting week, to say the least.

I've got a few stories for this post, so if you need to take a leak or grab a coffee, now would be a good time.

I'll start with the engine failure.

The otter's pilot speculated, and was pretty much bang-on it looks like, that the cause of the failure was the blower or the blower seal.

The blower is a supercharger basically, it takes power from the engine, by means of a gear off the crankshaft, and runs it through a shaft, up to a metal fan that takes the air the engine is sucking in and compresses it.

Piston engines eat air and fuel, you can pump, pour and slosh fuel into it without much trouble, in fact a lot of planes simply let gravity dump the stuff down its throat. The air is a little trickier, enter the supercharger and turbocharger, which both take the air and compress it before shoveling it down the cylinders to be gobbled up with the fuel.

Superchargers run off the engine by means of a shaft, they have the advantage of instant power, the engine turns over, the supercharger turns over. But it takes power to turn that heavy shaft and blower, power and weight. You gain power in the process, but it costs you a fair bit as well just to make it go and then to lift it all up in the air.

Turbochargers basically harness the power of the exhaust gasses that are leaving the cylinders and use that power to turn a fan. That fan is linked to another fan by means of a shaft, and the second fan is the one that compresses the air that is coming in. Its kind of like installing a hydro-electric turbine to your toilet in order to power your lights with each flush. Free ( kind of.. ) energy is very cost efficient. I'm pretty sure turbochargers are a lot lighter as well, but perhaps someone who knows more about it can confirm or deny that... One of the disadvantages of turbo chargers though, is that there is a lag between the time you ask the engine to give you more power and the time it takes the two fans to " spool " up and give you more power.

During the actual failure, we didn't lose much manifold pressure, ( the measure of how much the air being eaten is compressed ), so the theory was that the seal had gone where the shaft enters the blower ( its coming out of the oil-filled crankcase ) and oil had poured into the blower, then into the engine and then fouled the spark plugs.

The fouled spark plugs then caused the engine to run rough, as not all the cylinders were firing, and the oil that was pouring through was being burned in the good cylinders and pouring through into the red-hot exhaust pipes from the cylinders that were not burning.

If you've ever been to an airshow and seen them trail smoke out of their planes, that is simply oil being squirted onto the we kind of got the same effect.

The company I work for uses one plane, and uses it very efficiently. One of the dangers of this is when the inevitable mechanical issues come up that would ground the plane ( like not having a functional engine ), things can get a bit hairy, to say the least.

The owner however spares no expense in maintenance, both corrective and preventative maintenance. I mean, how could you not, right?

So, we actually have two more engines in stock. One of them is waiting to be sent out for a complete overhaul, the other is sitting at the overhaulers shop, finished and ready to go. Only problem is, the overhauler is located in a little town in Arkansas. The plane that requires the engine is here.... we had a very urgent need to dramatically decrease the distance between these two items.

It was decided that the otters pilot and I would jump in the pickup, grab a trailer out of storage and drive down there and get it. This being the fastest possible means, commercial shipping would be over a week and way too risky for this vital and relatively sensitive piece of kit.

The mileage worked out to 2100 Km's each way ( 1305 Miles)and we had to drive down there and back non-stop. Driving and sleeping in shifts, we did the whole trip in 46 hours. 4200 kilometres round trip in less than two days. This is a new record for me in long-distance endurance driving and frankly, this one will stand, there is little chance I will ever do anything that crazy again. It was an adventure though.

We got the full-on Welcome To The Excited States of America treatment at the border. Truck searched from top to bottom, pockets emptied, passports examined, rapid-fire questioning by some very serious looking border guards. They asked us to empty our pockets on the counter and I had the grand total of two items, my leatherman and a tube of chapstick. The other fellow had his pockets crammed with all manner of stuff, so that was kind of funny. The border gaurd examining his things picked up each item in turn as he was asking random questions and actually sniffed each item. That was actually kind of bizarre looking, to see him so seriously sniffing lighters and notepads.

The truck was searched, and it took almost an hour. At one point we could see them with handheld spray bottles spraying something onto the headliner and around the doors..not sure what that was to detect, my suspicion is some kind of drug-residue detector perhaps?

At one point, an officer passed through the area where we were waiting and we asked if it would be much longer. " It may be a bit, it looks like we've found some marijuana " she says.

That was more than a little disconcerting. Its been a long time since I ever came in contact with any of the green stuff, and my companion pleaded the same. The truck however, was used for shuttling guests around from time to time and we hadn't cleaned it out before heading south. It hadn't occurred to either of us to do so, but it was the only thing we could think of in light of our current situation.

Another ten minutes or so went by and they came walking back towards us, one of them was obviously holding something in his closed hand.

Once inside, he told us that they had found something in the truck, and he opened up his closed hand. He held two little evidence bags that had something inside of them and were tagged and numbered ( presumably with what would become our new prisoner numbers in US Federal Jail) and a bottle-cap sized clump of Marijuana. Our eyes bugged out of our head as we both leaned over to view the object of our demise... The officer said, " But, it tested negative, so you're fine ". Looking at it now, I could see that it was a clump of compressed grass clippings, like you would get on the underside of a lawnmower, or off some poor dockhands boot who didn't stomp his feet off before getting in the truck.

The drive, and the border crossing were pretty much like flying. Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.

Moment of sheer terror had passed and we were off and running.

We stocked up on road food at the first gas station. Beef Jerky, greasy chicken skewers, a couple 4-packs of Red Bull, some bottled water, some chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds.

The first 20 hours were pretty much as you would expect. 8 hours or so of this-is-cool-look-at-that! kind of road trip excitement. Followed by another 8 hours of boy-I'm-getting-tired-keep-talking-and-pass-me-another-red-bull. That got us through the easy part, the last hours were sand-in-your-eyes, watching the sunrise and tasting what it feels like to have second degree red bull burns on your tongue.

We made it though, down into deepest darkest Arkansas. Hillbilly country to be sure. People sitting out on their porches, old trucks littering the yards and sideroads. Thick accents at the gas station and blank looks when we told them where we came from, until we said Canada. The look changed again when we told them we came from Canada, last night.

The landscape in this part of the world is pretty neat as well. I had heard of the " Ozark Mountains " but had never actually seen them. It is quite hilly country, maybe not mountains by Rocky Mountain standards, but mountains none the less. The foliage is dense, almost tropical and the roads snake around the the hills and rock outcroppings like they do in BC. There just isn't 6000 feet of mountain towering over top of you, otherwise, at eye level, it is quite similar.

We were shocked at the heat and humidity as well. It was like being in a jungle. The last time I remember these kind of conditions was in Japan. 36 degrees celsius and 90% humidity. Absolutely brutal.

At one point we were at a gas station and I came walking back to the truck. Alarmingly, there was a stream of water pouring out of the bottom of the engine, like someone had left a tap running. We popped the hood as we thought we were overheating, and found it was just the condensation coming off the air conditioning canister. I've seem them do this, but its usually a few drips or a little puddle after a few minutes of sitting. The humidity was so intense here that we were distilling an amazing amount of water out of the air with the cold sides of the air conditioning equipment.

They are very big on their churches down in this part of the world. We drove through on a Sunday and saw one church in particular that had well over three hundred cars in the parking lot. The church itself looked like a mall, it was that big. It even had a giant jumbotron out front that flashed graphics and the topics of this weeks sermon. THe radio dial was full of religious talk shows and Christian music of all types.

Another little back-woods church we passed had an interesting sign out front. On one side it said " God hates homosexuality " and on the other side it said " But God loves homosexuals ".

We had about two and half hours at destination, talking with the fellow who did the overhaul on the engine. The man was a wealth of knowledge about large radials and this model in particular. He told us he had started in this business when he was seventeen and that was all he had ever done.

Part of me thought it was pretty cool to be so incredibly knowledgeable about something, where people seek you out from so far away, and your reputation, by name, not company that you work for, is recognized around North America. Part of me thought it was kind of sad though, that this is literally all he had ever done. He seemed happy enough though, so I'm glad that for him that was enough.

The pilot offered to take the engine mechanic up for a ride one day if he ever came up north. He laughed and said " No way, I don't ride in those things! ". That made me laugh. I'm sure more than one pilot has climbed back into their plane for the first trip after having the engine re-done by this guy and briefly considered the fact that the mechanic was not willing to ride in the machine he just fixed...

The big crate with the engine was loaded on our trailer and secured for the trip home and we were off and running again.

Both of us had our second, third and possibly fourth winds, after having driven though the night. That first night, it was hard sleeping in the truck, particularly when you felt an obligation to stay up and help keep the other guy alert. We both probably got 2 hours of interrupted, little here, little there napping on that first night.

Going back though, the sleep came a bit easier. We both stayed awake till nightfall,where we started alternating driving / sleeping in earnest. We got a routine going of one person driving for a tank of gas, then switching drivers when we pulled in for fuel, more red bull and road food.

A tank was getting us about three hours driving on the way back, with load in tow. So for the three hours you were "off-duty " you would spend the first hour chatting and letting your head un-wire a little. Then the pillow came out and the seat went back and if you were lucky you'd pass out for an hour and a half or so. Then the bladder would wake you up and you'd be watching for the next gas-stop.

At one point, the cars ahead of us flashed their brake lights and one of them pulled over to the side of the road. As wegot closer, we passed a deer, obviously dying and still twitching in the middle of the road, the cause of the stoppage in play. The car that had pulled over had its occupants out and inspecting the damage, so it couldn't have been too bad for them. It was about as bad as it gets for the deer though, and it was a reminder to us of what waited if we were to not keep our attention on the road.

We discovered that Red Bull is very effective. However. Caffeine and sugar buzzes, while momentarily effective at restoring alertness, are usually followed by a crash of commensurate proportion to the lift that was gained. So, you basically had to keep drinking the stuff once you started. My liver may never forgive me. The memory of what true mung-mouth is all about will stick with me for awhile.

Long drive short, we made it back.

Just in time too, as the mechanics had the old engine off, and were ready for the new one to arrive so they could start transferring all of the accessories over to the new one. Things like starter, carb, mags, exhaust, etc. We arrived just as they were ready for us, so there was very little time wasted there as well. In fact I'd say the engine swap went about as smoothly and in as good a time frame as the engine pickup. Everyone pulled out all the stops and there were very few serious snags to get in the way.

This part of the job took another ten hours or so. I didn't make it that far before I crashed. I stayed up for another fours hours or so after we got back and helped them unpack and offload the new engine, and get it into the garage along with the old one, before I had to hit the bed.

I laid down at 6pm and slept straight through till 6 am, where we had to get up and load up a group of guests on the last charter flight.

During all of the charters that we did, I got to see a few new airplanes up close and personal. We charted a Standard Otter, another Polish Otter and even a couple Beech 18's.

I definitely prefer the Polish Otter as far as functionality and performance are concerned, but I have to admit a soft spot for the Beech.

We were loading the Beech one day and a group of obviously well-to-do folks were boarding. They had in fact just been driven down to the dock from their private jet at the local airport.

One young guy looked at the Beech before climbing in, and I'm pretty sure I saw a bit of a sneer while he said " so, uh, how old is this thing?? ". The pilot answered back with no hesitation whatsoever " 1991 ". He did it so deadpan, I almost believed him. The young man did and boarded without any further fuss.

The Beech 18 was manufactured between 1937 and 1970. There are still plenty of 1940 and 1950 vintage ones still flying and this could very well have been one of them. His deadpan delivery and perfect comedic timing were awesome, to say the least. I'm going to file that one away and keep it handy, I suspect I will get some good use out of that line myself one day. A lot of the planes involved in this kind of bush flying are of similar vintage.

After the charter left, the serious business of the engine swap resumed.

They had stayed up till midnight the night before transferring everything over and getting the engine ready for the re-mounting. at 0630 the Boom Truck showed up to do the lifting onto the plane while the Mechanics attached the four bolts that held the engine mounts to the airframe.

I found it interesting that its only four bolts that hold all of that power onto the plane. All of the 1000 horsepower that this engine puts out, all of that forward thrust pulling 8000 lbs of airplane through the air, is through those four bolts.

I think there are probably a lot of this that we never think of. Critical cars parts, ladders, bicycles, roller-coasters, elevators, and that kind of thing, all depending on four bolts.

I've assisted in swapping out transmissions, engines and other major car parts, along with some pretty knowledgeable mechanics. Usually these major jobs are filled with all kinds of unforeseen snags. An old rusty bolt snaps off inside a critical housing and needs to be drilled out. Things seize up and wont come apart, Things don't line up just right, bolts get dropped into amazingly inaccessible recesses of the engine.

This went off like nothing I'd ever seen before. From my standpoint, it was picture perfect. Once the engine was on and a runup done at the dock, the mechanics piled in and off they went on a test flight. A half hour later they were back and there was nothing left to do but clean up and do the paperwork. I was impressed.

Working on airplanes is so much nicer than working on cars. I can see why someone with a mechanical bent, and no interest in aviation, would pick planes over cars. Other than being so obviously sexy, they are incredibly clean compared to a car. Very little rust, no dirt or caked on lube grease, mixed with gravel and for the most part, if a part is questionable, you replace it, you don't mess around trying to rebuild it.

So, we are back in business, with a working airplane and all. We've got no guest changeovers for the next two days though, so we've got a whopping two days off. Coupled with the muscular atrophy I got from sitting in a truck for two days straight, I'm going to have some serious weight training to do before the heavy lifting part of my job resumes.

Oh, and the cause of the engine failure. With the old engine off, the carb was taken off so we could look down into the blower.

This is the opening of the blower, once the carb was removed.

We couldn't see the seal itself, but what we could see was pretty alarming. A bolt from the bottom of the carb had someone gotten loose and dropped into the blower compartment. The blower, spinning at some 30,000 RPM, spun that bolt around for enough time to rip most of the fins off the blower and pit up the entire inside of the blower. We're not sure yet where the bolt went after that. It may have continued on into the engine, once it cleared a way for itself through the blower fins, or it may have ground itself down to nothing being bounced around the blower like that.

The engine is now being packed up and made ready to send down for overhaul and we wont know the final verdict until they've opened it up.

I suspect it did get ingested into the engine and there is going to be further damage discovered. But who knows, maybe the trip round the blower a few hundred thousand rotations was enough to chew it into a manageable meal for the big old radial. Lets cross our fingers that it made it into bite-sized chunks, these engines are not cheap.

Just before we left for Arkansas as well, we had a little bit of thunderstorm activity. In fact, we've been getting a fair bit of thunderstorms out here in the last few weeks. Usually just after passage of a warm front.

In my last post, I took a picture of some neat clouds that were passing over with a pretty big storm. These clouds are called Mammatocumulus clouds .

Turns out, this exact storm actually spawned at least one tornado in a little town south of here. I didn't find out until the next day.

Two outpost lodges were picked up and thrown into the lake, complete with the guests inside them.

These lodges are typically built sitting on top of foundation posts, but really, very little holding them down., They rely pretty heavily on gravity to do that part of the job for them. For the most part it works out well. A thunderstorm however, and a tornado in particular, can trump gravity in terms of force and thats what happened to these guys.

This is all rumor and hearsay, but apparently one cabin was moved about 75 feet and dropped into the lake, with all surviving.

The other, was picked up and the remains of it found over a kilometer away. The three guests inside this one all died.

I can only imagine the chaos inside the cabin with stuff flying all over and going end over end as it disintegrated over the lake. Very Sad.

The guests were from Oklahoma too I think. It seems they couldn't escape the tornadoes that frequently stalk that part of the world.

I've also got another trip back home booked for next month. I cant wait! I really do miss having The Lovely Wide with me for this adventure. I've always depended on her to help me get my head off the ground and up into the clouds, both literally and figuratively. If it wasn't for her, I never would have dreamed I could go down this road, the pragmatic side of it most likely would have scared me off.

Too often I get bogged down in depressing realities and I wish she were here with me to help me see the rainbows and unicorns that somehow she is always able to spot. I hope I do the same for her in some respects as well.

Its been a difficult summer for us both, in terms of our relationship and functioning at a long distance like this. We've reached the halfway point now though, and I'm hoping that somehow, someway, we are able to make this career path work for both of us without anymore time spent living apart. a couple days or even a week here and there isn't too unthinkable, but spending a summer away from her again is pretty much a non-starter, its just too hard. It seems like that would be a major hurdle, but I've met more than a few people that made it work. You just have to want something bad enough and there is always a way to make it happen.

And this suspect was seen again, stalking a local family of ducks.....


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, it seems like an unforgettable summer you are having. BTW, I couldn't help but notice that you said you would be flying home in August. Ali is visiting here and would like to know when to see if it could coincide with her visit.

  2. Epic road trip/driving marathon.
    I will get some local living pics up on a post for you sometime soon