(This is a part of A Summer of Flying.)
A couple days after the flight to Fishers Island, Dexter and I had everything packed up and we Uber’ed out to Caldwell. The plane is sitting in the sun, fully fueled and ready to go.
It’s so strange when something disappears from the plane, especially when it is something that’s not useful unless you have a plane. I carried a little yellow plastic fuel tester that came with the plane. Somehow while it was parked in New Jersey that vanished. Fortunately, the flight school at the Caldwell airport had one for sale for $8. Fuel was blue (110 LL, which is 110 octane low lead fuel) and there was no water floating around at the top of the tester. All good.
The oil was a little lower than I like. If I put in more than six quarts the tractor engine happily blows it out the oil vent and onto the belly of the plane. Since I added an oil-air separator the oil level has stayed higher, staying up at 5 3/4 instead of down at 4 1/2. It seemed to be just more than five quarts. The factory had warned me that there was a “really slow oil leak, more like a seep, around the crankcase seal on the front of the engine.” They couldn’t fix it because if they touched the propeller than they would need to send the propeller out for overhaul. Their regulations at the factory were a little tighter than the average shop. So I noted the issue and figured I would deal with it when I got back home.
But I should have added a quart of oil in New Jersey before I took off for Boston.
It was an excellent flight, soaring up over Westchester and skirting all of the NYC class bravo as we headed north for New England. A quick ninety minute flight, demonstrating how great it would be to have one of these little planes on the east coast.
There is a phrase that I first heard airline pilots using: “feet wet.” They mean the plane is now flying over water instead of land. I’ve heard controllers use it as well, “Turn direct Marthas Vineyard, advise when you are feet wet.”
Boston’s Logan International Airport is serious business. It has trans-Atlantic flights, trans-continental flights, little regional jets, and during the summer a bunch of flights from Cape Air flying people out to the little islands offshore and up into Maine. Like the NYC controllers, the Boston controllers are fast-talking, no-nonsense types. They don’t really want to deal with a student pilot on their first solo cross-country, but they aren’t rude to the general aviation pilots that call up.
Of course, I had flight following for our entire journey. I can’t imagine flying through the summer haze and expecting to spot all the traffic that was called out to me. So I’m talking to center controllers as I come up from Connecticut into Massachusetts and I am handed off to a Boston approach controller. He steps me down in altitude as I am approaching Logan, planning to send me out over the harbor and will bring me back for two-two right. All the heavy iron (big airline jets) are landing and departing on two-two left.
I am adjusting my mixture of air and fuel as the altitude is stepped down. As I pass over parts of the Boston suburbs north of the center of the city I remember my friend Ray Sagui, an F-16 and Southwest pilot, who listened to me complain about my engine sounding funny as I flew to Catalina over the channel. He said, “Yeah, my F-16 sounds funny when I’m crossing the Atlantic. Every time.” I flipped the MFD to the engine page and studied all the gauges, so that I knew everything was fine as I flew over the harbor since I was sure the engine would sound funny over the water. Everything was peachy.
I was handed off to tower as I entered the right downwind for two-two-left. He was talking rapid fire, but acknowledged that I was there and said he’d call my base turn. “You call base, one-romeo-delta.” Quick, crisp, concise. The better you talk, the better the service. And then, just as I flew over the terminals grouped around the maze of airport roads, and over an airliner landing on one-five right on the north shore of the airport, there was a bong. I glanced at the PFD: “Low oil pressure.”
The tower controller was still rapid-talking to an airliner, passing him off to ground. I figured I had another six minutes in the air, a lot of it at a glide rather than requiring any engine power. Did I really need to do anything different, couldn’t I just continue and land?
That thought lasted all of four seconds, just enough time to go feet wet. Then I pulled the trigger on my control stick that lets me transmit. “Logan tower, Diamondstar one romeo delta just had our oil pressure light come on, we would like to expedite our landing.”
That gives the controller some leeway. I haven’t declared an emergency, so he can handle some other planes first and ask some more questions. But I have made him aware of a situation that concerns me. But he just asked one question, confirming that I had a low oil pressure indication and wanted to get on the ground as soon as possible. When I acknowledged that he said, “Delta five-six-two, go around, make right traffic back to one-five-right,” and as soon as the airline captain repeated back and started abandoning his approach to one-five right the controller said, “One romeo delta, cleared to land one-five right, you can make a short approach from a left two-seventy if you need to, but you can also fly a downwind, whatever you need. Do you require equipment?”
“Require equipment” is code for, “Do you think you will be on fire?” I slid back the throttle gently and tipped the wings up, pointing the nose down. We picked up a little speed, but I added flaps which added drag. We were not on a proper downwind and I was basically spinning in place to plop myself down on the runway that was nearly directly beneath me. I had already studied the airport so I knew that it was a ten thousand foot long runway. If I couldn’t get it down in two miles I belonged in Boston Harbor anyway.
“Negative, one romeo delta will not require equipment, hope to be parking Signature.” I read somewhere that it is helpful to the tower controller if they know where on the field you are headed, so they know which way to clear you off of the runway. As the ground below filled most of my field of vision I saw the Delta flight accelerating in a low pass along the runway and already in a positive rate of climb to circle the field in the traffic pattern. It was strange knowing that there were a hundred fifty people that were wondering what they hell happened to make them need to make another landing attempt, all because I underestimated how much oil the engine would burn in on a less-than-two-hour flight. Or because I had a catastrophic oil leak. No way to tell, really.
I had basically tumbled onto the final approach for the runway and by pulling the nose up as I straightened out I bled off a lot of the speed. I dropped all of the flaps, since I was already in the white arc and in an aggressive slip-to-final move. The additional drag got me down toward the runway threshold faster and I crossed the numbers at ninety knots. I saw the Signature FBO flash by on my right, but focused on getting the nose up a little more, the plane straight, and watching the oil indications.
Once all three wheels were firmly on the runway I retracted the flaps, which puts more weight on the tires, and braked hard. I slowed through the intersection with two-two right, and I was stopped before two-two left. I was able to make the turn tower suggested on taxiway quebec. The entire approach and landing was down with the engine at idle, as if I had lost engine power entirely. So the moment of truth, as it were, was the moment I pushed the throttle forward a little to taxi. The engine sounded fine and the ground controller confirmed that I didn’t need any equipment and I didn’t need a tow. I said that the oil pressure indication was low, and the alert was on, but that the engine should be fine for five more minutes. We taxied forward onto the Signature ramp and I shut down.
You would think that would be the adventure, but the amazing thing is that Signature didn’t have any oil for a piston engine. If you check those photographs, there are no other piston airplanes on Logan Airport at all. Why stock something they aren’t going to sell? So I got into our Uber and headed into Cambridge with Dexter. Nell would arrive in the morning on the red eye and we would have it figured out by then.
My Diamondstar mentor, Philip Greenspun, lives in the Boston area. So my first email was to him. When I explained the issue with the plane he started consulting A&P mechanics that he knew and suggested AOG (Airplane On Ground) vans that would race over to Signature and diagnose the problem. Actually, it turns out that on July 3rd, the Thursday, of a July 4th weekend in Boston it is difficult to get people to do much of anything. Eventually I did get someone at the Signature FBO at the Bedford Airport to admit to having the oil. I then had to hire a taxi (limo company, actually) to go and pick up the oil. That was cheaper than renting a car and doing the drive myself, believe me because I priced it. (Greenspun is a web development fan, so he had suggestions for these Rabbit services where the gig economy would get the oil to where it needed to be. That didn’t work.) Finally, at sometime before dinner, we knew the oil was where it could wait for us in the morning, so I was able to go have a nice meal and tell Nell we were good to go.
Dexter and I woke at some ungodly hour and hopped in a cab. We beat Nell to the FBO, but I think only because the Signature van driver couldn’t locate her at the passenger terminal on the other side of the airport. Logan is the only place where you have to go through security to get out to your private plane, but we dutifully performed our part in the National Security Theater and loaded up the plane.
I put in two quarts of oil and tucked a third into the plane. Later I had to do some work in email (and on Facebook) because I realized that Signature had used the opportunity to move an entire case of oil from KLEB to KBOS, on my dime. They agreed to split the cost of the limo instead. People are so nice and accommodating when you don’t start with anger but with curiosity. “Hey, does this seem right to you?”
That’s one of my favorite images. Little one-romeo-delta on the ramp at Signature Logan. Next to the millions of dollars worth of business jets that I am sure hedge fund managers, lobbyists and old money have parked to get them out of Boston in the summer. Much larger jets in the background, ready to take people all over the globe. Little one-romeo-delta ready to trot us up to New Hampshire instead.
We load up all of the bags. Nell packed light, she has to be back in Los Angeles after the long weekend. Rudy is working, so he’s going to miss New Hampshire this summer. Our long taxi out to take off lets me check all the engine parameters in detail. And we get the larger jets crossing in front of us. This is not a small, community airport. Everything looks good with the engine, it just wanted some more oil in there. (In the photo we are actually parked at an angle on a taxiway where the ground controller said we could do our run-up.)
It wasn’t all that warm yet, so I didn’t need that much runway, but the twin runways at Logan are huge. We banked over the city and headed east into the woods and hills.
However it works out, the path up to Lebanon, New Hampshire is a little random each summer. Or, at least, this is the first summer in ten years that we happened to fly directly over Pleasant Lake and could look down at the house. If we had cell service we could have texted someone down there to come out and wave. We could have even done a low pass.
There was a Cirrus that was chasing us into KLEB, and it was a little hard to figure out where they were in relation to us. But the tower was clearly watching the two of us on radar and as we started our descent, picking up speed, they cleared us to land first. We came in over the arrival end of three-six. There was some early morning haze, and because the tower was bringing us in for a left base for three-six my usually solid orientation related to an airport was a little off. The runway was a mile long, so I didn’t have any trouble even with a little extra speed over the numbers.
Granite Air, the FBO, said they would take care good care of N971RD and would check out the oil leak. (It turned out to be nothing critical at all. They felt I could safe fly it back down to KCDW where they could replace the seal.)
And with that, the little plane rested while we enjoyed the peace of being at the edge of a small lake, listened to little more than the wind through the pines, the small waves against the rocky shore, and the occasional car sighing past on the unmarked two lane behind the house.