The ferry flight that should never have been
Last winter I got a phone call from an acquaintance in Germany who told me that he was going to sell his RV3. I had seen pictures of the aircraft and knew that in the ten years since he had completed the aircraft, he had really only done a handful of hours. The year before, I had sold my share in the RV4 that a friend and I had together and despite still owning two great aircraft, I was missing the RV. Badly. And since really 99% of my flying is solo and within 1.5 hours from home base, I figured an RV-3 would fit my needs even better than the -4 had done. So the thought was intriguing.
A phone call to a common friend however taught me that he had heard that the aircraft really was in a so-so condition. The price was reasonable though, so my father in law and I got in my car and drove the 5 hours to southern Germany to check the aircraft out anyway.
Turns out my friend had been polite when describing the condition of the aircraft. The bare alclad plane hadn’t been polished in years, bird excrement was all over it. All fibreglass work was a mess. The tailwheel was crooked, affixed canted over sideways by at least 20 degrees. The “expert” that had wired up the panel really made a spiders web out of things. The elevator skin was cracked and a botched repair had been attempted that had only made things worse. The spinner didn’t fit at all, the interior was a mess and the smell of mice was overwhelming. In short, the plane was a mess.
So despite the fact that it was priced very competitively, I decided to let this one go.
Several months passed, during which the plane never left my mind. My want for an RV-3 grew by the day. And it was thus that one evening, I got a phone call. The owner of the -3. He really wanted to sell now, so he was going to advertise it actively. But first he wanted to check if I might be interested after all, if he’d knock a couple of thousand more off the price. With that, the price had come down to less than the cost of the set of quick built wings and the mid-time O-320 that it had. And so I figured that the 5 current projects that I had were not enough and I really could use a 6th. The basics were good, the plane was very lightweight and what wasn’t right, I could fix. We struck a deal and agreed that the seller would make the plane airworthy again, would fly it around to prove it would actually do that safely, and that after that, I’d come down to pick it up.
And thus, one faithful day last June, a friend ferried me to central Germany in his Falco. A 2-hour flight certainly beats a 5-hour drive, right?
Upon landing, I noticed that the airfield had a fairly narrow and short runway, and a stiff crosswind blowing from between several rows of hangars. More on this later.
I was greeted by the seller and by what was now my plane. The seller had swapped out the prop to one that didn’t vibrate as much as the one that was on there. Unfortunately, the spinner didn’t fit the new prop, so he had cut out two huge openings and then taped the whole thing up. Oops. Can we remove the spinner? We could, but it would entail removing the entire prop. Never mind, I’ll fly it this way. It’s only a two-hour flight. Add some duct tape to prevent the rough edges of the aluminum spinner cutting into the prop and let’s fuel her up.
You did test fly the plane like we agreed, right? Yes? Good! Oh, for SEVEN minutes? Not so good. Guess I’ll be doing the test flying myself after all.
The engine started up right away, which was a relief, as it had been less successful last winter. Taxiing to the fuel station with that crooked tailwheel wasn’t all that great, but hey, it would only be one flight. And then I’d take the thing apart anyway to make things right.
A thorough preflight showed me once again that bowl of spaghetti that was the wiring loom. But again, it would only be for one flight. It would be ok.
And so we took off. I went first, my buddy in the Falco following behind.
But holy ****, if this was the prop that was “way smoother than the old one”, then I understand he never flew the plane. The fillings all but rattled out of my teeth. I had to throttle way down to 2100 rpm in order for it to feel reasonably safe. That two-hour flight all of a sudden sounded a bit longer. But hey, if I’d stay below 2100 rpm, it would be ok. And besides, returning wasn’t such a glorious idea with that short, narrow runway and stiff crosswind in an aircraft type that I had never flown before. Back home, three 2500 ft grass runways awaited me. No crosswind, plenty of room. I’d much rather land there.
My buddy caught up with me and we’d climb to 3000 ft to avoid some airspace (we tend to fly LOW here in Europe due to all sorts of airspace above us). I briefly allowed some more rpms for the climb. Once at 3000’, I throttled back. And back. And back. But nothing happened. My throttle lever was no longer connected to the carburettor. Yikes! Luckily, aircraft carbs have a spring in them to make this eventuality survivable by pulling the throttle butterfly valve open. So I still had power, which was nice. And revs, which with this prop wasn’t. Things really started to shake.
Screw that crosswind, we’re going back! Now my first ever landing in an RV3 will be on a short, narrow runway, with crosswind, dead stick. How nice.
And then it occurred to me - something had come loose. Either the lever on the carb, or the pin hooking up the throttle cable to that lever, or the throttle cable itself, or the pin holding the cabin side of the throttle cable to the throttle quadrant. What it if was this latter? Then I just might… and indeed, by reaching over the throttle quadrant, I could just get a hold of the throttle cable between my middle and ring finger and pull back on it. I had control again! Of course, it would mean I would be pulling that cable against the spring, and I couldn’t throttle it all the way back since my fingers could only move about half an inch before hitting the throttle quadrant, but at least I could throttle back to 2100 rpm again.
So…. Dead sticking was still needed. Do that on that narrow crosswind runway or back home into the wind on grass?
I decided on the latter and flew on.
The engine instrument for the aircraft was this crappy MGL (sorry MGL, I don’t like it) thing which has one tiny little number in a corner for oil pressure and oil temperature, alternating. And it alternated between 135 (F or C? Either way low or way high) and 1.1. Was that Bar? Kind of low. In all the excitement I had failed to keep a good track of the engine parameters. The engine sounded healthy though, and my buddy confirmed no smoke or any other misery. Nevertheless, I started to look for places to put her down, but all I had below me was woods. And no airports. And so I flew on. Until I saw it. In tiny little characters. “psi”. That was not 1.1 Bar, that was 1.1 psi of oil pressure! And it was now reading 0.8.
2 seconds back to 135 (F or C? Still had no clue)
2 seconds 0.7 psi
2 seconds 135
2 seconds 55
2 seconds 135
2 seconds 0.1
2 seconds 135
2 seconds 48
2 seconds 135
2 seconds 0.0
2 seconds 135
And now a new thing, within the 2 seconds it would start at 55 and rund down to about 2
And this repeated at every cycle.
The oil pressure cannot be this erratic, and even if it were, it would not be in exact sync with the MGL gauge. This is an instrumentation thing. Or more likely - the result of that pan of spaghetti called wiring.
The Ruhr area now coming up, which is basically one massive conglomerate of built-up areas. Think LA basin. No place to land, anywhere.
My middle and ring finger are by now quite cramped from pulling back on that throttle cable, but the thing still purrs on. And it is only 40 more minutes before I am back home. And so we soldier on. Interestingly, according to the fuel gauges (LCD, mounted behind the stick so they are REALLY hard to read) still show completely full tanks. I am glad I filled her up completely. As long as I switch tanks at even intervals, there is no way I’ll be flying them dry.
15 minutes out from home, I call them on the radio. This airfield is like a small village. Most people know me. And they know I am picking up this aircraft. No, I am not going to do a high speed fly-by. I have very little throttle control and will be dead-sticking it in. Tower clears the pattern for me. The airport is all mine.
Just prior to entering downwind, I figure out that if I take the stick in my left hand, I can cross over my right arm to reach the throttle cable from the side. This way I can hold it between thumb and index finger and have way more control. And more room to actually more my fingers. Why didn’t I figure this out 90 minutes before? I even figured out why it would not move back any further than it did. Rotate the cable a bit and the fork will slide around the lever and now it WILL move back more. So far back in fact that I can slow down enough to actually pull my flaps. If only the flap handle would not be on my left side, and my left arm wasn’t occupied with the control stick.
So I switched hands back again, power going up immediately after letting go of the throttle cable. Pull up the nose to keep speed in check while selecting flaps. Cross arms again, pull back on that power and enter downwind.
Short final, all looks good. Glad I always come in high with minimal power, so dead sticking will really not alter my sight picture all that much. Time to kill the mags and land. Switch off the mags, engine keeps running. Yikes. Spaghetti again! Ok, idle cutoff then. Unfortunately, in the seconds it takes for that to kick in, I had already covered half of the 2500 ft runway. But finally, put put poof, engine came to a halt. Land the plane, roll out, and use the last bit of momentum to roll off the active runway.
I had made it!
My buddies admire how I have kept my cool and kept flying the plane, figured out a way around all the curve balls that the thing threw at me, and landed the plane without any further mishap.
I’m less enthusiastic about my performance.
What’s that saying again? A superior pilot uses his superior judgement so that he doesn’t need his superior flying skills?
Sure, flying the plane over was more convenient than taking it apart 5 hours away from home and trailering it back. But already (somewhat) knowing the state of the thing, I should have never taken it up. I bought a project, I knew that. I should have never treated it as a FLYING project.
I have since taken the plane apart. I’ve found the missing pin. Also found the short piece of wire that was doing a poor cotter-pin impression on the mixture lever. No wonder the throttle came loose. I have also had at least half a dozen “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments while taking the plane apart. Fuel fittings to the fuel pump that were hand tight only, right above the exhaust. The main relay/contactor that had wires from the battery running to it, with no rubber protecting cap over them, and the contactor itself being bolted on by two extremely short bolts that would only reach halfway their hardware store nuts, no spring washer, no nyloc, no loctite. When (not if, when) these nuts would have come loose, the thing would have fallen to the bare aluminum cabin floor with nothing to protect these thick cables from welding themselves to the floor while exploding the battery at the same time. Between my legs, with a fuel line and fuel pump next to it. That kind of thing.
I’ve got a nice project in my garage now. ALL the wiring is out. Panel is out. All fuel lines are out. Wings are off. Tail is off. Seat rivets and luggage compartment rivets have been drilled out. Engine bay is getting an extreme makeover. As will all fiberglass. I’ve already started polishing, which I find less of a nightmare than I had feared. She’ll fly when she’s ready. Next year maybe.
And I’ve learned from this. A lot.
Congrats on the new project! Glad you were able to get you and the -3 home safely, sure you gained a few extra grey hairs along the way.
Wow, Hans. What a thriller! I enjoyed your story but please don’t do that again! That’s too many failure modes for one two-hour flight. Thanks for sharing. You had me on the edge of my seat.
Enjoyed the story Hans. Glad you're still with us!
I chose the other path......
Amazing story, and well told. The timing is funny as I just flew down to help a friend ferry his “new” plane a short distance home. Turned out to be in similar shape to your description. My decision was not to fly it, and my advise was to get the wings off and rent to truck to get it home. Your well told play by play makes me know I made the right call. Glad your story ended well.
Thanks for the good story Hans, well done. And good luck with your 6th project :D
Hopefully the builder showed more care and attention to the underlying structure of the aircraft than he did to the finishing touches...
Great writeup, and i'm glad to hear you made it back in one piece! Once you have it all fixed up and flying again, it's going to make for a great history to the airplane.
Very scary story, Hans! Glad you made it. Hopefully others will read this and not make the same mistake(s) - could have been nasty!
In my defense - the plane had just received an annual and was considered airworthy. It may have looked like ****, but the engine ran strongly. Instruments seemed to work just fine when I was still on the ground. The tailwheel was crooked, but not unsafe. The spinner in retrospect was not such a good idea, but interestingly turned out to be one of the things that was not problematic.
The guy who built it had more RVs that he had put together, and his flying buddy (who was also present) was an A&P/IA.
Really, my woes all started to happen during flight and no matter how thorough my preflight, none could have been foreseen.
Still, next time I'll take it together on the spot and DRIVE. ;-)
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