The Changing of the Guard

Posted March 2005

For all my involvement in the Fly Baby world, there is actually one thing I haven't done:  Built a Fly Baby.

This has one big ramification in my flying:  I don't hold the Repairman Certificate for my airplane, and thus have to have an A&P do the yearly conditional inspection.

(A side note:  Experimental aircraft in the US do not undergo "annual inspections."  The term has specific regulatory meaning under FAR 43, and FAR 43 does not apply to Experimental aircraft.  Instead, our planes' operating limitations usually state that the aircraft much undergo a yearly condition inspection "to the scope and breadth of Appendix D of FAR 43."  Since our planes do not have type certificates, an A&P with an Inspection Authorization (IA) isn't required.  Inaccurate or not, we still tend to use the word "annual" for our homebuilt condition inspections.)

Other than a two-year break when I was part owner of a Stinson 108, I've been involved with Fly Babies for almost twenty years.  First was N500F, in the club, of which I was the only active member and thus responsible for the airplane's upkeep.  Then I bought Moonraker about nine years ago.

During that twenty years, over the span of those two Fly Babies, an A&P friend of mine has performed all those condition inspections.  He was my lead engineer when I started at Boeing twenty-five years ago.  My first day at work, when he found out I was a pilot, too, he showed me a photo of the plane he was part-owner of.  It was the Story Special.

Ed graduated from Parks College after WWII and went to work as a mechanic for Northwest Airlines, maintaining their Constellation and DC-7s.  He went back to school in the '50s, earning his engineering degree and going to work at Boeing.

He got roped into doing N500F's annuals by Cecil Hendricks. I learned how to work on Fly Babies under his tutelage.  At annual time, I was expected to have thoroughly cleaned the airplane, lubricated all the moving parts, and repaired any problems I found wrong.  I'd hold the prop during the compression check, and Ed would note the readings in pencil on each valve cover...a long-time habit of his.  You could always tell which homebuilts Ed inspected.  The list of years and compression readings were always a source of amusement for passers-by at various air shows.

Otherwise, Ed only inspected... I'd follow along, helping, and fill out a the squawk sheet.  He'd go home, and I'd spend the next several days correcting the problems.  Ed would come out, check my work, and sign off the annual.

When the previous owner of Fly Baby N45848 bought the plane in California and brought it back to Seattle, Ed ended up doing its annuals.  The first year, he made this entry in the logbook, alongside the more-formal language: "This is the best Fly Baby I've ever seen."  With Ed being *extremely* picky, this is high praise.

About five years later, I came across the owner of N45848...who asked if I wanted to buy his airplane.  When I talked to Ed about it, he said, "You BUY that airplane, Ron!"

The rest, as they say, is history.

But history, too often, is merely the passage of many years.  Ed, who had been slowing down a bit, suffered an aortic aneurism about a year and a half ago.  He almost died; he did spend about four months in hospitals/managed care facilities.  When my annual came up a year ago, he volunteered to do it again. His daughter had to drive him to the airport, since the doctors hadn't cleared him to drive yet.  We did the annual together, but I could sense his frustration.  He didn't have the mobility to squirm into the deep recesses, he didn't have the stamina to stay out in the hangar for the hours required.  It took too much out of him.

He recovered to a good extent in the past year, but we both agreed it was time to find someone else to handle Moonraker's annual.

After twenty years...this was a bit nerve-wracking.  I didn't really want to hand it to just *anybody*.  Chris Brown rebuilt his Fly Baby as the practical part of his A&P training. He offered to do my annual...but Chris lives 90 miles away.  It'd be awkward to fly my plane to his airport (and maybe have to leave it if something major was found), and it didn't seem fair to ask him to drive 180 miles round trip for my annual.

I talked to some of my airport buddies.  One recommended the mechanic who annualed his Stinson. The other, owner of a classic four-seat aluminum homebuilt, recommended Mike, the A&P who'd done his annual last year.

I called Mike.  A positive sign right off:  He *knew* that this was a "condition inspection," not an annual.  He figured it would take about three hours, so we set up a meeting for Friday afternoon.

As you might figure, I was nervous.  For the first time since I bought the airplane, I crawled under the belly and cleaned all the grease and dirt.  The ELT battery was past its due date, I replaced it.  I washed the outside, and wiped down the engine.  I was *really* nervous.  My plane has a lot of little faults.  My opinion is that none affect airworthiness. But would my new A&P have the same opinion?

When Mike arrived, I had the cowling and all the inspection panels off.  I'd done the usual annual maintenance tasks, had the assembly manual standing by (in case he had questions), and had various tools ready to go.

He asked for the airworthiness certificate, registration, and logs, and spent quite a while paging through the records.  I tried to keep myself busy scrubbing the grease from the inside of the cowling as he went through the airplane and engine.  He made few comments, almost all positive.  He really appreciated the convenience of the belly inspection panel, and liked the installation of the dry-cell battery.

I have a tendency to gab when I'm nervous.  Often, when I saw him poking around a part of the airplane, I'd come over and explain things I'd done *years* ago on that part...which, of course, cued him in to what to look for.  I pointed out the dry rot repair in the tail, showed him the Proshold gap seals, talked about my starter clutch problems, etc.

The main hitch came at the engine:  After he cleaned it off, he asked me to remove all the plugs for inspection.

In past years, Ed and I had always just removed the bottom plugs for the compression test.  I'd never *had* the top plugs out, before.  There were even rust stains flowing off the plugs to the top of the cylinder.

The #2 cylinder top plug wire "cigarette" was rusted atop the plug...the plug wire separated from it.  The others came out just fine.

Mike looked at the plugs.  "These are a bit worn," he said.  "Might want to look into replacing some of these."

At that point, I'd *really* regretted not schmoozing Harry Fenton for a new set of plugs, back when he was still with Unison.

Then I remembered ANOTHER Fly Baby luminary:  Drew Fidoe.

You see, at the Arlington Fly-In last year, Drew mentioned that he'd put a box of old plug in for sale at the Fly Market.  I commented, "Gee, I should buy them and have some spares."

And that swell fella just *gave* them to me.

So...when Mike mentioned that I might need some replacement plugs, I said, "Uhhhh...I've got a box of used ones...."

Mike looked them over, and sure enough, there were about four of them that were in better condition than the ones I'd been flying.  He took eight plugs back to the blaster in his hangar for cleaning, and dug up another cigarette for the damaged plug wire.

The plugs came back gleaming gray.  Into the cylinders, torque them down, the compression check.  All came in at 80/75 or higher.

As Mike went to make the entries in the engine log, I made my own notations: Compression readings in pencil, on the valve covers.  Figured I had to keep up the tradition.

By this point, it was getting dark and raining a bit.  "Let's meet tomorrow to run the engine," said Mike.  "Maybe the weather will be better."

The next day, it was *absolutely* pouring (it set a record, in fact).  I rolled the plane onto the taxiway, rain drumming on the fabric.  Up atop the wing-walk, squelch down into the seat.   I hunched into my old shop coat, jammed my blue "HMCS Winnipeg" cap (worn in honor of Drew's plugs) down atop my ears, and hit the starter.

Those old plugs worked just fine!  Mag check was about the same as it had been before (~50 right, ~75-100 left) and I got about 2200 RPM on a full-throttle static test.

Back into the hangar for the verdict.

Mike was real pleased with the condition of the aircraft, and had only found a couple of minor problems.  I hadn't replaced my Brackett filter element (has to be done yearly), I didn't have a compass correction card (mea culpa, I *knew* I needed one), Mike wanted to see a placard showing the On-Off position of the fuel valve, and he also wanted another placard at the gas cap with capacity and minimal fuel grades.  He made an appointment to come back the next day to check these last items and sign off the logs.

I ran to the local aircraft-parts store before they closed and got the element. I used my printer to make the required ink-jet has ink that isn't water soluble (though whether the tank placard will withstand gas spills is another question).

Sunday, Mike checked things over and signed off the logs.  He charged $250 for the inspection...pretty reasonable, since he probably spent at least five hours on the airplane.  Additional costs were ~$7 for the filter element, and $30 for the ELT battery.  Last year was pretty trouble-free... I'd replaced the starter clutch and transponder the previous year, and everything seemed to work OK in 2004.  About all I had to do was change oil and replace a pull cable for the cabin heater ($7 at NAPA Aerospace).  So I got through the year with no more than about $350 in total maintenance costs.

Needless to say, I'm real happy with Mike. Like Ed, he had excellent attention to detail.  He was very picky...worrisome at the time, but it sure gives good peace of mind now that he's done.  Nerve-wracking as it was, having a different A&P examine the airplane was probably a real good idea.

It had been great working with Ed on the airplane, but I had known the guard would inevitably have to be changed, someday.  I'm glad to find someone just as strict, and just as fun to work with.  I still talk to Ed every couple of weeks, and he comes and hangs around the airport occasionally.

Finally... guess what Mike's "daytime" job is:  Mechanic for Northwest Airlines. Just like Ed had been, almost 60 years ago.

Nice to realize things haven't changed *that* much.....

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja .

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