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.