Oh dear, Adam has written so much more in the blog than I have. I tend to get caught behind because I have a story I want to tell and I’m bad at telling stories out of order. So I’ve wanted to tell the story of our departure from Paso Robles since the end of November. I have at least half a dozen stories to tell after that, some of them probably shorter and easier to write, but I can’t summon the will power to jump the queue.
To complicate matters, I don’t really understand our new blog platform and host and I am bothered that there are posts missing from the original blog and links that I had put up that I haven’t figured out how to add back. It’s so sad that I have slipped into the role of luddite when I used to just love spending my time learning yet another hosting setup. Now I would rather learn a new airport or a new route across the desert.
(So far flying back and forth to Las Vegas we’ve been heading over Palmdale. I think that the next time we head out we’ll go south and over Big Bear and Twenty-nine Palms. It doesn’t look a lot longer and I think it might be a lot more interesting.)
So we woke up early at the Best Western in Paso Robles. We figured we’d get a jump on the day. We rode to the airport cramped in the front seat of the maintenance man’s pickup truck. It would be worth it, because we would climb into our magic chariot and rocket off into the deep blue sky.
Not so fast.
It’s bitter cold at the airport. I mean, not cold for anyone that lives in a “temperate” zone, but we live in the desert of Southern California under the constant smiling sun. If it’s below sixty we’re looking for the sweaters and the electric blankets. It was probably forty at the airport, so I told Nell to keep the boys inside and I’d go get the plane warmed up for us.
I did my pre-flight. I am pretty sure that when I was last in Paso Robles (my check ride), I picked up a bunch of little spiders as I crawled around on the ground under the plane. They covered my calves in mean little bites. I looked for them this time but it was, of course, too cold for them. It was nearly too cold for me.
I climbed in and did the pre-flight check list. I did the little routine I had learned for the engine (mixture rich, fuel pump on, throttle full forward twice, then back to cracked) and turned the key for the starter. The prop swung around, but it was noticeably slow. I thought for a moment and tried again. There was no combustion at all.
Keep in mind that at our flight school we were taught in the second lesson how to start these planes: the same steps worked every time. Previously the only time that I wasn’t able to start the plane on the first turn of the prop was when I had forgotten to push the mixture to rich (so I was trying to start the engine without any fuel). I scratched my head (and worried about spiders). The propeller was turning so slowly that I worried that there was only another couple starts in the batteries. I didn’t know if that was because the oil was cold (and thick), the batteries were cold, or that the air was cold.
I hopped out. There had been a golf cart with a couple guys in it. They had come around collecting parking fees. I jogged over to their little fuel depot and hanger. I asked if they could jump start the plane. A plane. Any plane. I had no idea if this was a reasonable request. Do planes get jump-started? They looked to be about twenty-two, and were watching some aviation video on a ten inch screen with wavy lines. They looked at each other.
“We got the battery cart, right?”
“No, that’s been broken since August.”
“Really? I thought it was good to go. Didn’t they use it a few weeks ago?”
“Yeah, on a bizjet, but that’s a Piper, it would need the adapter. I think the adapter is broken.”
After some more of this informative discussion they decide to come take a look. I’m sure I look like an idiot, so I explain that I’ve rented the plane and I don’t ever need to start it in cold weather. They ride me back out to Two Sierra in their golf cart. They get out and, really, just stand and look at the plane. Their hands are their pockets because it’s cold. I ask if one of them would like to give it a try. Oh no, no, neither of them is a pilot. Ah. I call Nick on the cell phone, waking him up I’m sure. I explain the situation and he suggests two shots of primer, THEN tuning the starter. I get in and try that. The batteries give it a go, but it really seems to grind to a halt without any combustion at all.
Nell has wandered out to the plane with the boys. I am now more than a little concerned and I am short with her. I try to get across that she and the boys should wait inside where it is warm. I realize that it is early on a Sunday morning and, since Beavis and Butthead can’t help me, finding real assistance in a town that doesn’t even have an operating taxi service might be a problem.
(It’s unfair to call them Beavis and Butthead. There’s not enough business at PRB to keep someone gainfully employed. These are college kids who know how to fuel the aircraft and collect the ramp fees. They are really nice and tow the plane over to the Jet Center with their golf cart (really). It would have been a pain to push it.)
They give me the number for the Jet Center and say that someone will come out to help, even on a Sunday morning. I call and wake someone up. He says he’s twenty minutes from the airport, but he’ll be there.
I call Nell on the cell and tell her I’m waiting for a guy. I hear the boys going a little nutty in the background and I’m glad the lobby of the Paso Robles airport is larger than usual for an airport of this size.
I push Two Sierra around so that the sun is hitting the cowling. Maybe it will warm up the engine a little and the oil will be a little less viscous. Who knows.
Twenty minutes later a pale blue VW Golf buzzes out onto the tarmac. It pulls up in front of the Jet Center hanger and a guy jumps out and looks at Two Sierra. I tell him the story.
“No problem, I’ve got a battery cart in the hanger, I’ll pull it out and hook it up. If I don’t the right connector I know the guys at the fuel shop have one.”
”Actually, they said they didn’t. Or it was broken or something.”
“No it isn’t, I used it last week.”
“Oh, okay, they seemed a little confused and weren’t sure what something this old would take.”
“It’s a standard connection. It won’t be a problem.” He walked over to the door into the Jet Center. He pulled. No luck. He patted his pockets, but he was wearing sweat pants and there were no pockets. He jogged back to the car and checked in the pocket of the driver’s side door. No keys. He said, “I forgot my damn keys. Sorry. I’ll go over and tell those guys we need their cart.” He jumped in the car and roared off down the ramp. I imagine Nell saw him go by the front of the terminal.
Ten minutes later he came roaring back. I asked if we should give it another try without the cart and he said that if it was “cranking slow” that it would be a waste of time. Better to just get the cart hooked up. We talked about airplanes a bit. I asked about the metal squares on the tarmac. He said that the little jets are heavy and their wheels are small and that in the summer they can sink into the tarmac. They slip the metal plates under the front edge of the wheels as they park so they don’t get stuck on hot summer days.
We stood around too long. He kept looking over to the fuel place. “Hang on, I’ll go find out what the hell is going on.” He jumped back in the Golf and roared off again. A vehicle in motion sure looks sweet right then. I thought about how if I took his Golf I could probably get Nell and the boys home in under three hours.
He comes roaring back, jerks to a halt by the Jet Center office door and leaps out again. “They are on the way.” Sure enough, a green tractor rounded the corner of the fuel shops hanger. It rumbled toward us. As it got closer I saw it was towing a low white trailer, presumable the battery cart.
Beavis was a little sheepish when he hopped off after circling Two Sierra and shutting down. “Sorry, I didn’t know this was still working. Looks like we could have gotten you started.” The Jet Center guy fiddled with the wires, hooked them up to the Piper and waved me to the door.
“Oh,” I said, as I was climbing the wing, “are you sure you don’t want to start it first?”
“Nah, you’ll do fine. If it’s something more than a dead battery I’ll open the cowling and we’ll take a look.”
I climbed in over the tangle of headset cords, the discarded checklists and knee board that all seemed to be in the way. I did the two shots of primer and the Jet Center guy said, “Give it three.” I did. I did the rest of the starting alchemy and turned the starter. The prop swung around and, through the miracle of unlimited battery, swung faster and faster. The engine coughed and caught. It roared, since I had the throttle advanced too much. When the engine was idling (a little faster than idle to get the battery re-charged and the engine warmed up), Jet Center gave me the thumbs up and disconnected the cable.
I taxied over to the passenger terminal. I shut down (a little nervously) and Nell brought the boys out. I did another little pre-flight (because that’s the sort of nervous, thorough guy I am: I hadn’t left the ground and I still needed to do the walk-around again, checking all the control surfaces and draining the fuel ports for signs of water). We climbed in, I waved to the Jet Center guy and the fuel shop boys and we taxied out toward the runway. I did a really careful and thorough run-up, really listening the engine. It was fine; it just needed to get started.
I announced our intentions on the traffic advisory frequency, rolled onto the runway, and once I firewalled the throttle our magic chariot leaped forward and rocketed off into the deep blue sky. Finally.