Rain Dance

Posted December, 1991

Question asked of a Fly Baby driver:

Q.  What do you do if it rains?

A.  I get wet.

Over the years, I've had only a little experience with flying my little open-cockpit homebuilt in the rain.  Admittedly, it rains a bit here in the Seattle area.  But there's usually a couple half-day segments every second or third weekend where it doesn't, so I maintain proficiency without having to fly through the big drops.  I'd flown through a little mist, but had never actually flown while it was raining.

Until yesterday, at least.

The experience didn't come about due to curiosity, nor as a case of  "get-there-itis".  It came from a more primal urge of the aircraft owner:  "Where the hell is that oil coming from?"

N500F has a case of the transient oil leaks.  Most of the time, it just generates a typical amount of oil on the back of its forty-year-old engine. Then, on some flights, it seems to come a-gushing.  I don't mind wiping off the firewall, or the bottom of the cowling.  But when oil specks appear on the windscreen during flight, I call out the brain trust.  My friendly A&P thought it was coming from the bottom of one cylinder.  I asked the Fly Baby technical guru (he restored the plane in '82) to take a look.

We rolled the plane out of the hangar under typically cloudy, yet untypically dry, skies to take a look.  Of course, I'd wiped off the oil after the previous flight... which hadn't had much of a leak anyway.  We took the cowling off and ran the engine ten minutes.  No oil worth mentioning.

Everyone knows the feeling of promising an event that doesn't happened.  I'd promised an oil-leak of Exxon Valdez magnitude, and produced one or two drops.  "How 'bout I button it up, and fly it for twenty minutes or so?" I  asked the guru and his guru-at-arms.

"Yeah," he said.  Just then there was a loud BONK from the fabric-covered wings.  Followed by another.  "Startin' to rain.  Me n' Jim'll go catch a  cup of coffee at MacDonalds while you fly."

They helped me button up and safety-wire the cowling as the rain picked up. I preflighted as they climbed into the Guru's big blue van and left.  The shop coat went into my car, replaced by leather jacket, helmet, and silk scarf.

The engine started easily, being warm from testing.  Raindrops rippled the prop blast's waves in the puddle outside the hangar.  I mounted up, belted in, and pulled the release for the tail rope.  Past experience had shown the prop blast tended to keep rain from the cockpit.  It seemed to work on the taxi out.

But when I pulled my goggles down, they were covered with drops.  I wiped them with the back of my glove, only to be rewarded with smears.  My hankerchief was out of reach (wide-body pilot in narrow-body aircraft) and the scarf was tightly wrapped around my neck.  I gave it a minute or so to dry, then checked for traffic and took to the runway.

As speed increased, the windshield got blurier.  By the time we broke ground, forward visibility was gone.  Visibility to either side was great... I could see a good ten miles.  But the rain completely obscured the windshield.

Rather an odd situation... blind forward, in a situation where I was praying for a major oil leak to prove my claim.  Sheeshhh....

One consolation:  Taking off to the south at Auburn, pilots are requested to turn early during climbout to avoid overflying a hospital 3/4 mile upwind.  I've always interpreted that to mean a "duster turn" right after takeoff... which is as close to legallized buzzing you can come.  Full power, altitude 100-200 feet, heading change of 45 degrees.

I climbed to pattern altitude and entered downwind.  Still blind forward. The droplets flowed up the windshield, piling up at the top.  Occasionally, a largish drop would flip past the rim and pummet toward my knees.  It was kinda fun to play with... the drops didn't go straight up the windshield due to the prop blast, but I could wiggle the tracks with a little rudder pressure.

I scanned carefully for other traffic, not believing I had the whole pattern to myself.  Us NORDO types are used to checking for traffic in the blind spots, so I added a "Rain Dance" variation to my usual "NORDO Shuffle":  Kicking the rudder from side to side to see forward as well.  A little bit of yaw let me look past the windshield almost straight ahead, and I kept a gentle serpentine path to clear the area along my anticipated track.

On the whole, I wasn't uncomfortable.  My jacket handled the forty-degree temps, my jeans and tennis shoes were well out of the wind, and if any rain hit my flying helmet, none of it soaked through.

I turned base, still disbelieving the pattern was clear.  When I turned final, the airport disappeared behind the windscreen.  But this was my home airport.  I brought it in a little high, then kicked into a steep slip. The drops flew sideways off the windscreen and the runway emerged to one side of the translucent panels.

As the Fly Baby doesn't have a castoring 1500-fpm gear, it was eventually necessary to kick it straight.  By this time, most of the airport remained in sight... only the 50-feet wide stretch of asphalt remainedhidden.  Still, it wasn't much worse than landing from the back seat of a Cub.  Runway contact, then forward on the throttle to go around again.

Still no oil on the windshield.  As I climb out, I look at the McDonald's parking lot.  The maintenance guru's van is still there, so I'll make the next pass a touch-and-go, too.  Let him drink his coffee.

The cycle repeated, time after time.  After a half an hour, I was cursing free coffee refills.  Then it hit me.  The restaurant has windows facing the airport.  He was probably sitting in a nice cozy booth, saying, "Look at that idiot take it around again."

I landed and taxied back to the hangar.  After rolling the bird inside, I unbuttoned the cowl.  The guru rolled up just in time to see the one or two drops of oil that'd appeared during my half-hour flight.  "Just normal seepage," he pronounced.  Sigh.  At least the bottom of the suspected cylinder was dry.

Surprisingly, though, so was I.  The slipstream did indeed keep the rain off the pilot.  That might not be true in a real gully-washer, though.  And a half-hour isn't really a full test.  But it was an interesting experiment.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja .

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