Flying a new airplane is like a first date and the one with Old Bess was blind. Although she wasn’t quite as advertised, I had no choice but to get to know her. Jeff, the previous owner, was there to make sure of it. They say no matter how great a plane is, someone somewhere is tired of putting up with her shit. Fortunately that someone was around to answer questions; any that would ensure we left together.
As John strapped in up front, Jeff stood by the hangar shuffling his feet and checking his watch. When I caught neither of them looking, I put my hand on Old Bess and quietly whispered, “I’ll take care of you old girl”. In my mind, I was trying let her know she could trust me and that she should act accordingly.
“How many shots of prime do you giver her” I asked, standing with one foot on the trailing edge. “She likes the prime, saaay five to seven; more if she won’t start” was the answer. Looking like a guy mounting his first horse, I grabbed the handle added to assist passengers, pulled myself up, awkwardly swung my right leg into the cockpit and onto the seat, gingerly grabbed the windshield frame, brought my left leg in, eased my hands down to her combing, and hesitantly slid my butt into the seat.
When I was learning to fly in the family Champ, there were days just climbing in made me feel stupid. Often I would hit my head, miss the step, or end up with both legs left or right of the stick. At times it felt like there was nothing I could do right. Months later though it was common for me to discover myself strapped in, seat belt locked, and the spring loaded clank of impulse couplings marking time. By then, so comfortable was I that minutes would disappear like those on a familiar road home; I couldn’t even tell a person how to climb in. I had to demonstrate it.
Studying the Stearman’s panel while fumbling the belt through the harness, my mind drifted to an ideal future where once again I might find myself sitting there, prop swinging, harness buckled, and no knowledge of how it happened. As my right hand grabbed the latch and swung it into place, the ball bearings locked in with a snap and I came back to reality.
“You ready?” “Yeah” said John. “Ok, here we go.”
One twist on the knob and five shots of prime later, I nervously shuffled my butt in the seat, lifted the switch guard, and hit start. NNEeeerrr, eeeerrr eeerr eeerr eeerr went the starter meshing on gears as I counted through ten blades and rotated the mag switch to both. Nothing happened. In that short time the starter had engaged to gears, they had driven spark from the mags, the oil pump pushed crude through the galleys, valves labored against springs to breath, and the crank encouraged pistons in and out of position. These are among many things you take for granted when your ears hear the starter and your eyes see propeller spin. Unfortunately, when the engine doesn’t start it’s hard to know which one to blame. Turning my head to look at Jeff, I saw he was already pumping his arm and mouthing “MORE PRIME.” This time I gave her 8 shots and ran the drill again.
Throttle cracked, mixture rich, everyone ready, CLEAR PROP! NNEeeeer eeeerrr eeerr eeerr eeerr went the powerplant; each eeerrr announcing the approach of top dead center. As the right number of blades swung by, my hand moved briefly from the throttle to flip the switch.
A radial engine creates a music so distinct, writers have been trying to pen its score for decades with no success. To me it has always seemed like an orchestra of one lung engines playing the same mechanical song as a round. Think Row Row Row your boat sung to the lyrics of one combustion cycle. Gears whine, a carburetor breathes, valves click, fuel explodes, and gas rumbles out the exhaust. As each cylinder completes a round, another cylinder enters the chorus midstream the next. And so it goes until all are firing a rhythm best described as enchanting. Spellbound by this sound, I was caught in the moment as she came to life. Unfortunately, it was not the best time to be daydreaming.
Coming out of my trance, I could hear her heartbeat slowing; she was about to die. Grabbing the throttle with a few quick jabs, my goal was to catch a rhythm. By the time we would get home, this act would be instinctive. That day it felt like CPR. Fortunately, I was lucky and a few sputters later Old Bess was ready to go. There was only one question left to answer; now what?