The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 2)

The repair of the CTSW took about another week. The shop had run out of push rod tube seals, so we lost a couple of days waiting on some to arrive. The repair itself only took a day or so once they got there; but Houston swings between days of good weather and bad in cycles during the summer and the good days had passed while we were waiting. Between a couple of weathered-in days and my desire to limit work impacts as much possible, the next attempt to get the airplane home looked to be on the weekend. Most of our weather was due to afternoon thunderstorms firing up, so leaving Denton in the morning made the most sense. That meant I’d have to either get up there the night before and stay overnight or get up there early in the morning and try to get back as fast as I could. To make things worse, the shop said they didn’t have any way to assist with the trip up until the following week. Allowing the whole thing to drag out until then would mean impacts to both my work and personal schedules I wanted to avoid, so my wife and I started exploring ways to get me up to Denton to fetch the airplane at the lowest cost. We had enough points in our airline accounts to pay for a ticket on Southwest Airlines for only a few bucks, so we used it to buy me a ticket up on Saturday morning, July 8th. I got one for a flight that arrived at Dallas Love at 8:30 in the morning.

The shop didn’t typically work on Saturday; but they were trying to move some other work forward so there would be folks there who could let me have my airplane. I didn’t think there was much chance of getting a ride from them when they were manning with a skeleton crew and didn’t want to depend on it; after looking at what ground transportation was available and what each cost, it wouldn’t cost me any more to rent a car than renting a ride, so that’s what I did. It would be a one way trip and I’d drop the car at the FBO. Having a car would also give me some options about getting lunch or a room if things went awry and I had to spend the night.

My wife dropped me at Houston Hobby at a little before six thirty on the Saturday morning. I was carrying only my flight gear and had positioned it plus anything else that might trigger a TSA security alarm in my flight bag so I could send it through their X-ray. I breezed through security and got to my gate to find our 737 already there. There were probably only about 40 people total on the whole flight, so getting a window seat was not a problem nor was launching on time.

I was keenly interested in the weather on the flight up; most of it seemed to be active to the east of Houston, i.e. good news for me if it stayed that way. We landed at Dallas Love a few minutes early and I beat feet out of the Terminal to the car rental busses, barely missing the one for Hertz rental as I stepped outside. A good fifteen minutes later, one showed up again and I rode it to the Hertz rental counter where my car was already waiting. I spent a few minutes checking her for damage and a few more checking her controls before plugging in a route to the Denton airport on the iPhone. It said I’d be there in 38 minutes. That was a lie; I-35 North was destroyed for construction and it took me an hour and 45 minutes to roll up to the shop and get out, hoping the mechanics were still there. They were; but they didn’t know I was coming, so they spent a few minutes on the phone making sure letting me have the airplane was okay while I performed a very thorough preflight, including a visual inspection of the engine compartment with the upper cowling off. There were no oil leaks anywhere and the oil level was at the top, right where I wanted it to be. Having a full tank of oil meant extra time in the air in the event of another leak.

By the time I got the preflight and weather briefings done, it was approaching lunch time. I had only snacked at breakfast time, so I felt I needed some real food to take with me since it would take close to three hours to get home. I needed to top off the fuel in the rental car anyway, so I headed out for a Chevron gas station some few miles away that I knew also had a Subway sandwich shop. I fueled up the car, got a sandwich and a bottle of cold water, and hustled back to the airfield where I turned in the car at the FBO (with some qualms in case I had to return but couldn’t see a good way to both hang onto it and turn it in as promised). I walked down to the shop and the CTSW, got the cockpit and me ready, and started the airplane up. After completing the post-start checklist, including getting courses laid into all my nav gear and the Go Pro camera started again, I taxied out for takeoff as I had a week before except I had no intention of overflying the area to the south. My plan was to fly out to the southwest as I had before and not to request flight following to leave me freer to deal with the airplane.

After completing my takeoff checks and taxiing up to the runway, I called the tower for takeoff. The controller told me to hold short again and asked me for my direction of flight, to which I responded “southwest”. A few moments after a Cessna transited in front of me down the runway, the controller issues me a “maintain runway heading and no delay” takeoff clearance with traffic inbound at one mile, which I accepted as I gunned the airplane forward, hitting full throttle as I rolled onto the runway centerline. Everything felt good, and the little CTSW lifted off quickly, climbing up several hundred feet before I retracted her flaps while continuing straight ahead. When the tower controller called me for a right turn, I rolled into it at her command before acknowledging it on the radios. Like I had before. I continued climbing to 2500 feet while heading southwest, switching off to Unicom frequencies when outside 8 miles.

I continued southwest over Propwash and onward to Copeland, where I again started a climb to 4500 feet while turning southwest. I had altered my planned course slightly to make it direct shot from Copeland to Bourland, closer to but clear of the Class D airspace belonging to Fort Worth NAS JRB, which I like to call Navy Fort Worth. I punched up the tower frequency and was surprised by the number of requests to transit their airspace, many of which were from departures from Fort Worth Meacham’s airport immediately to its east. The climb to 4500 feet was completely normal, and I started to relax, thinking that my problems with the CT might be over at last. I flew out from under the Dallas Class B’s southwestern ring and, with Bourland in sight, pushed the throttles up for a climb to 5500 as I swung more southeast.

Once again, I felt the vibration, the slight skipping, that I had seen before. I pulled the throttle back and started a right hand descending turn to return the way I had come. It was back to Denton again, no matter how much I hated to do it. Like last time, the gauges were showing me nothing unusual, and the engine was purring along like nothing was wrong as long as the throttle was not at full. I leveled the airplane down at 3500 and went to full throttle to see what I would get; the vibration returned and the RPM seemed to hang. I backed off the throttle, putting her at normal cruise, and pointed the nose east of Copeland, trying to run more directly back to Denton. The direct line clipped the Fort Worth Alliance Class B which I could stay above; instead I elected to fly a little bit northeast of the line rather than risk any kind of infringement. My nose stayed ready to sense the smell of burning oil, but I never did. I pulled into the left downwind for runway 18 paralleling a Cessna inside my right wing; the tower had him turn in close and first and I followed him around the corner to another safe landing.

The hangar doors at the shop were still open but no one seemed to be there. I stopped my airplane and shut her down and found one mechanic working on a Cessna Mustang who I explained to what had happened. As I unloaded my gear again, I checked the nosegear and saw another oil leak running down the strut at the same spot as before. Whatever was happening was BUSTING the seal! At that moment, any doubt I had about where the problem was located disappeared. I was very certain the problem was in the head, something I told the head mechanic when I got him on the phone. We also now knew that the problem wouldn’t appear until the airplane had been airborne for thirty to forty-five minutes, suggesting to both me and the head honcho that it was related to the overall thermal load, i.e., heat soakback, in the engine; and we knew it was busting the push rod seal. He responded that he knew what it was, i.e., a valve sticking open that was overpressurizing the push rod tube and then causing the seal to leak. I had seen valve problems in cars when racing as a kid, and I concurred with his analysis. We now could explain every symptom we were seeing. If we didn’t have the exact cause, we were damned close to it! He said he’d talk to the mechanic on Monday and, in the meantime, see what he could do about getting me back home. Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t able to come up with anything; so I re-rented my car, got a hotel room in Denton for the night, and wound up buying a ticket home on Southwest Airlines. Not the outcome I was looking for; but I once again was happy both me and the airplane were okay and I was convinced we were now on the right track to solving the problem.