The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 5/Conclusion)

The next Saturday (after I had returned from a trip to Reno, Nevada to attend the Tailhook Association’s 2017 convention and a reunion dinner of my Navy fighter squadron), I performed a quick “check flight” consisting of two touch and go’s and one full stop landing in our local pattern. There were no oil leaks and engine performance felt and sounded normal.
On Sunday, I came back out to take a longer flight involving some climbs at least up to 2500 ft; but as I headed out to the southeast to my favorite practice area, the CTSW began emitting a strange howling noise I had never heard before. Once again, I turned around and headed back to the airport. The winds were out of the north so we were landing on three –two; as I approached the airport, I heard and saw no other airplanes in the pattern so I made a bee-line for the end of the runway to get back on the ground. I landed without incident, taxied back to the hangar, pulled the cowling off with the help of my wife, performed a full power static run up, and listened for the noise. I didn’t hear it. That suggested to me that the noise was probably due to something associated with the airframe. It sounded like it was coming from an area above and ahead of my left ear, though I really wasn’t sure that it wasn’t transmitting through to there from somewhere else. Pointing toward it, though, was the fact that the wings had been pulled off as part of the conditional inspection. I couldn’t dismiss the probability that something had not being properly sealed up, especially considering everything else that had happened.

Judging it to be more of an annoyance than a safety risk, I launched again with my Go Pro mounted in the cockpit and recording. The sound showed up as I moved past ninety knots. I varied the power and heard no change in the noise but then noticed it decreased with airspeed. After landing, I took all the video I had and put together two clips. One began with footage that illustrated normal cockpit sounds and noise level but then switched to footage that contained the new noise. The other was a shorter clip from a flight that caught the noise starting up. I posted both clips to You Tube and then posted them to my aircraft’s online owner’s forum along with a question asking if anyone could identify the noise. Two owners, one of them a well-known CT mechanic, responded almost immediately. They both identified it as “tape noise”. Bolus tape is used to seal small gaps between several of the aircraft’s aerodynamic structures, the wing/fuselage joint being one of them. I was told to inspect the tape for any cracks or sections that weren’t sealing against the surfaces. Somewhere, the air was exciting the tape so it was acting like a reed in a musical instrument. It was hard for me to believe that tape could make a noise that loud, but I trusted what they were telling me and did an inspection the next day.

I didn’t find anything telling. I did notice the mechanic had used on a single strand of tape to seal the wings (versus multiple layers used previously), and that the tape in the front gap looked more depressed, even if it didn’t appear broken. I laid another strand of tape over the first, overlapping about 80% of it and the edge against the inner part of the wing. I took off and didn’t go far before the sound came back, though it delayed its appearance until 110 knots. After returning to the ground, I overlapped the other side of the original tape and the new layer so both strands were partially overlapped and ensured the seals against the lower fuselage were really tight and the tape ran all the way back to a bracket at the flaps, as the mechanic had instructed me to do. I launched out again and the noise did not show up, no matter what speed I flew. Once back on the ground, I laid one additional layer of tape over the installation on the other wing to hopefully ensure the same problem did not develop there later on.


All the problems seemed to be licked. The only thing I still felt I needed to do was put enough time on the engine while airborne air to ensure the push rod tube sealing at the head was good. So, I planned a flight from Pearland to Brenham via Houston Southwest and Lane to provide me that assurance. As I was checking tire pressures for that flight, I inadvertently pushed the nosewheel tire stem sideways and its joint ruptured, deflating the tire in in instant. (OMG!) It’s a small tire and I could not locate a tube for it at any local store, so I had to order one online and lost ANOTHER week! Luckily, the guys over at Air Professionals at the airport jumped on it and got her done as soon as I got the parts, and I finally launched out on that “check flight” eleven (COUNT ‘EM….11!) weeks after the airplane had been released from its conditional. I performed climbs to 1500, 2500, and 6500 feet, followed on the return with a climb to 5500 feet right after takeoff followed by a high speed, near idle descent to continuous low altitude cruise at 5400 RPM, 100 RPM below the engine’s maximum continuous operating limit (and the RPM I typically fly at in a headwind). I returned to Pearland about two hours after I took off and immediately got out and checked for oil leaks. There were NONE! What a RELIEF! Finally, all this crap appeared to be over; and I could go back to JUST FLYING!

I was grateful to the shop that performed the conditional that they hung in until most of it had been resolved, but I was more than unhappy with the time it had taken to get it all resolved and the low priority they had given the whole affair, especially considering it was all due to their errors (five in all), and how they stopped communicating when they didn’t have an answer. I was convinced that the mechanic knew his stuff but I was also convinced the whole thing had occurred because he rushed all the work and took shortcuts to complete it. Because of that, I will not return my aircraft to them for any work nor will I recommend them to any other Light Sport owners, even though they are manufacturer approved.

Here are my other “take-aways” from all this.

1. Don’t ignore what your gut is telling you; follow it! Believe me, when I first started feeling something was wrong, I didn’t instantaneously snap to the right answer, I wanted to ensure I was right, something you really can’t do. (Better dead than look bad?) I did take the time to investigate what was happening; but as I discovered that there were several small clues the airplane had an issue, I knew it was in my best interest to do what my gut was telling me to do, a lesson often hard learned through my life experience, including being in the middle of the space shuttle Columbia accident. And I did it not once but TWICE! While you can argue about what the oil leak rate was, what you can’t argue is there was a real if not totally quantifiable possibility of oil starvation and engine failure and whatever outcome that might have brought. When dealing with both machines and people, sometimes it’s the small things that you pick on that prove to be the most telling. Better to put your aircraft on the ground and be safe and wrong than stay in the air and be dead and right. (“I thought something was wrong…)

2. Knowing your aircraft and its systems involves not only what’s in your head but what’s in your senses and your experience. This was demonstrated in the small kinesthetic and audio clues that triggered my awareness while the gauges appeared to be telling me there was no problem. The motto in the space shuttle Mission Engineering Room (MER) during the Columbia era was: “In God we trust; all others bring data.” While that often does make sense, the Columbia accident (and the Challenger accident) and this experience showed there are often limits to that approach, and like most things invented by humans, nothing is absolute. It took me a long time to learn the hard way that to ignore what my senses are telling me (and they are giving me a very valuable but different forms of input) is as big a mistake as failing to reason things out. Sometimes, the data you need to make a logical decision just isn’t there. Welcome to Life!

3. You’re a pilot, a passenger, or CARGO! At different times, we all vacillate between those three states. It usually doesn’t kill us. But life does present those moments when you MUST become the pilot or failure to do so can have definite and sometimes serious consequences. As aviators, we often have to deal with other people who are in authority or have our fate in their hands. Sometimes the right thing to do is trust and follow; sometimes the right thing to do is rebel and take charge. How do you know when to do the latter? Go back to bullet point #1; when your gut is telling you something is wrong. In that case, be the pilot! Tell the air traffic controller you can’t or won’t comply (UNABLE or declare an EMERGENCY) or the mechanic where you think the problem is. Yes, there may be some pushback but ultimately no one is going to keep you safe but you. That doesn’t mean other folks won’t help you and you can thank them when and if they do; it’s that we’re all human and nobody’s perfect. BTW, if you sit on your hands and don’t say anything, even that you’re concerned, then you’ve moved from being a “passenger” to CARGO. Don’t complain to anyone if you get mishandled.

4. Stay cool and take it one step at a time! It’s one thing to think ahead to what can happen next and anticipate it; it’s quite another to overreact and elevate your risk beyond what is necessary to meet the moment. Bias your options toward the worst case; but be careful you don’t take it so far you create a BIGGER problem. Yes, sometime this involves your best guess, but that’s what your training is for. Stay with what you know and do what you need to in order to stay safe, including sacrificing the aircraft. Walking away is all that matters.

5. Have the patience to stay with it until it is COMPLETELY resolved. In all my years of owning and flying aircraft, this was the situation that tried my patience and my endurance the most. There were several times I was so exhausted and frustrated I almost turned it into a legal case, something I didn’t want to do and I knew would mainly be a win for the attorney. It also became so tiring that I was temped to do what was EASIER and shortcut the measures I felt needed to be taken to validate the aircraft’s safety and ASSUME that things were okay without proof. I could not do so without putting me and, more importantly, the people I care about (and others on the ground I didn’t know) at jeopardy that could be avoided. In the end, I followed each issue to a resolution and performed a “check flight” campaign I felt would push out any remaining flaws. I pushed the aircraft and engine into flight profiles similar to some flown on my more difficult cross-country flights, giving me some confidence I could re-employ the aircraft without undue concern in the same manner.

Eternal vigilance is not only the price of freedom but the cost of aviation.

(NOTE: If you haven’t read the whole thing and would like to do so without wading through the website, a pdf version of it is here.

The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 4)

I learned to pay attention to a little ditty when I was involved in Naval Aviation that goes like this: “It only takes one dumbsh*t to wipe out a thousand “atta’boys”.” That was about to apply to this evolution, as you shall see.

I was pretty impressed that the owner of the shop had flown the mechanic involved with this whole thing and his boss (also a mechanic and an IA) in a Citation down to fix my airplane. They roared in about 11 a.m.,jet blast reversers screaming them to a stop, and pulled into a parking spot near the FBO. My hangar is only a short walk away, so I headed toward the jet to escort them to my CT. After shaking hands, saying “hello”, and thanking the mechanics for coming, I walked them back to my airplane. They did a quick inspection that couldn’t reveal much; it had been a week since the airplane had flown and any oil that might help them pinpoint the leak had disappeared. So, we pulled the airplane out of the hangar, pointed the tail at only empty grass, and started the engine. Even though the ambient temperature was already in the nineties and climbing toward the century mark, it still took a few minutes before the engine hit its minimum operating temperature so the mechanic could open up the throttle while the IA searched for a leak. And found one. Unlike the other leaks, which had been at a single push rod seal at the bottom of a tube, this one was coming from the top; it was inside the head. They would have to not only take the head off but remove the push rod tubes and reseal them. The mechanic said he needed Loctite 620 to do that; and he didn’t have any. (So much for delaying five days to make sure they had the right parts.) The IA started immediately saying they’d “have to come back”, which meant to me they had no hesitancy about putting my airplane down for two more weeks; despite what had happened, the mechanic was going on a two week vacation the next day! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and was determined not to let them off the hook easily; what sense did it make…especially after they had flown down in a Citation…to simply declare defeat and walk away before trying to see what could be done? I suggested they go to a nearby mechanic’s shop and see if there was any down there or if someone could tell us where we could get some locally before throwing it the towel. They didn’t want to do that. The IA asked the mechanic what Loctite would work, and after some checking, he said any 600 series Loctite would. From my hazy memory came a nagging that I had some Loctite, though I wasn’t sure what type or where it was. I found it after a short search; it was a bottle of Loctite 648. Giving them now no reason not to proceed, they took it and started taking the head apart.

The first words I got about how long it would take to do the repair was a couple of hours; so, after going over and meeting the shop’s owner to thank him for coming down and checking on whether I could do anything for them, I left to grab some lunch. When I got back, I sat and waited for the job to finish up, hoping to take the airplane for a short hop around the pattern to verify the fix. When the job was almost complete, they finally told me the airplane needed to sit for at least 24 hours for the Loctite to completely cure. That meant they would have to leave anyway, and I would once again be left with an unairworthy airplane for an uncertain and already LONG length of time. The IA promised to come back to perform a leak check in the next few days. I encouraged him to do just that.

The end of the week came with the IA saying couldn’t get transport down. Since he was convinced all we were after was a leak check, he asked if I would allow a mechanic’s shop on my field to assign someone to do the leak check whose time he would pay for. Wanting to move forward, I agreed. A day later, the local guy and I went out to the CT and, after I pulled the engine through and checked the oil, pulled it out of the hangar. As he inspected it closely to get a good look at its condition, I saw him hesitate as he looked in the area of the push rod tubes; but he didn’t say anything. I got in the CT, started it up, sat waiting for the engine to warm up, and then signaled him I was going to run it up. He nodded and I did, advancing the throttle in steps as he watched for leaks. When I shut the engine down, he called me aside and showed me where we had a new leak. This was back at the push rod seal…AGAIN!

“I thought that seal looked a little rolled up,” he said.

We put the airplane back up and I got on the phone with the IA in Dentin. He wasn’t sure how he was going to tackle it now with his Rotax certified mechanic gone. He admitted it was his problem, and I sent him a link to a website he could use to search for Rotax certified mechanics anywhere to help him out.

I gave him a day to work the problem and then got in touch with him again. He stated he was legal to do the repair himself and planned to have someone fly him down in a King Air in a day or two so he could. But as the time approached and the King Air ride didn’t work out, he said he didn’t have a way to get there (despite the fact that Southwest Airlines was flying multiple flights to Hobby every day and he could drive down in five hours if he was really motivated), so he asked if he could hire someone at KLVJ to do the work. Since I personally knew the mechanic who did the leak check had Rotax experience if not a formal certification and I was convinced having someone local pursue it was a better course, I agreed. I spoke to the owner of the local shop and he was fine with doing the work, though it would be the middle of the next week before he could get to it. Since that was about the same time the Denton crew could get to it if they pressed ahead, I didn’t see we’d gain anything by having the guys in Denton fly down; and, frankly, I felt it was time to move the work to someone with fresh eyes and hands.

I wrote an e-mail that included both shop owners and the Denton mechanic who had been so far unsuccessful at completing the work and discussed how I saw us proceeding if we had an issue after the next attempt to close it out. Bringing someone else in held the potential for complicating things if there was still an issue, especially since the airplane had not been flown since the push rod tubes had been reinstalled. I proposed a three way conversation for any issue, and that if anyone involved didn’t agree with what I was proposing, then we needed to halt moving forward in this manner. I didn’t hear anything back. I figured that, in actuality, no matter what the result, the original shop still would have legal responsibility to resolve the matter, especially since the second shop was working on their behalf. I knew I was taking some risk going this way, but I didn’t see I would be risking any more than I would by bringing the original mechanic back in. He had made already made FOUR attempts to “get her done”. I was just glad the shop manager (the IA) was standing behind their work regardless and was at least making some effort to get it all resolved.


Ten days later, nothing had happened. The owner of the local shop decided he didn’t want to get in the middle of it; and while I didn’t blame him for that, I was irritated at him for promising to get it done in a week and then not telling me he had decided not to work on the plane. I didn’t find out until I called the Denton shop and informed them nothing was happening. The owner of the Denton shop said he would come down on Thursday or Friday of that week but then shuffled the job back to the original mechanic who couldn’t come until Tuesday of the week following. (God forbid someone consider driving down from Denton on the weekend to get her done, even though almost sixty days had passed since this mess started.) On the Tuesday morning of the planned visit, I got a text as I waited to hear the mechanic was airborne that said instead he had wrecked his car on the way to the airport and wouldn’t make it. I responded that I was glad he was okay and also texted the shop manager and asked him to call me. A hour or two later, I called the IA and told him I didn’t think it was wise to continue to send the original mechanic and reminded him of his promise to come down and finish the job for him. He said he heard me and would get back to me with his next plan.

In the meantime, Hurricane Harvey spun up in the Gulf, making one of my worst fears about this continuing debacle come true. The un-airworthy state of my aircraft meant that flying her out of harm’s way was impossible, and I would have to take my lumps and hope her hangar would protect her. I won’t go through the horror show that Harvey was; and, obviously, the fate of one’s aircraft pales in comparison to trying to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and water out of your home. We were some of the most fortunate ones; we got no water in our house. Though we were trapped in the house for days, we had plenty of food and water and power the whole time. As it became clear we weren’t going to have to call for a water rescue, Harvey left, and the water began to recede, so my attention turned first to our cars (which didn’t get flooded though the carpeting in my convertible did get soaked by overflow from some drains) and then the airplane. A flooded Clear Creek not far from us cut us off reaching the airport, so there was no information about our airplane’s fate for days. As things were calming down, I texted the owner of the hangar and asked him if he could see its security cameras and, hence, our airplanes; while he had lost his internet connection, another pilot in my hangar had been out to it and let us know all the airplanes were untouched. It was a few more days before the creek receded enough to allow me to drive out to the airport and see for myself.

It was only a day or two later that Hurricane Irma formed; and as it barreled west, some of the early computer model runs were spewing out the possibility that Houston might be in its path. This prompted me to make an angry phone call to the guys at the Denton shop to light a fire and get them down here. I wanted the airplane ready to fly out; considering what we had been through, there was no way I was going to consider remaining in Houston if we were in for another hurricane hit. The problem mechanic said he’d be down on the following Tuesday (about a week later). I was expecting that to be the first day back at work and so I told them I needed for them to make their own arrangements to get around. I heard nothing until that Tuesday morning when I got an e-mail from the mechanic saying he wasn’t coming because he couldn’t get a rental car. I sent him back a very irritated e-mail telling him he should have called me and gotten on the airplane, and started a text conversation with his boss as well. Having finally reached the end of my patience, I told them they had until 1800 Friday to get my airplane up or I would take legal action against them (I did indeed have an attorney picked out.). They got the mechanic on a flight down on Southwest the next day. I made arrangements with my boss to do some work from home and take a short day to make it all work.

The mechanic FINALLY did make it the next day, and I picked him up at Hobby, drove him to my hangar, and left him to work. I asked him to call me about 20 minutes before he was ready to do a run-up to check his work; he said he would. Two hours later, I decided to see what was going on and returned to the airport to find the CT sitting outside the hangar getting ready for her run. After some initial problems getting the airplane to start, I got the engine running and we checked her out. The seal did not appear to be leaking. We talked about me doing a few trips around the pattern to verify the fix and I agreed to it, at least until I checked the winds and found them gusting up to the airplane’s demonstrated crosswind limit. I was exhausted from all I had been through and decided flying in those conditions wasn’t a good idea. So, we buttoned up the cowling, I taxied her out, and we did a full power static run instead. Again, there were no leaks; so I taxied the airplane back to the hangar and out her up. By then it was lunch time, so I took both of us over to Chick Fil A and then dropped the mechanic off at Hobby to catch his flight back to Denton.

(Continued; see Part 5).