Monday, April 30, 2012

Ernie Was Right

We’ve all had them right? Those moments when fate and fortune found common ground. Our minds collect them; life’s baseball cards.
Digging through the dusty shoe box of history, one of my favorites comes to mind. Like many great cards it represents the beginning of a career. Its stats convey an image of who that person is and who they would become, the photo captures their youth, and the card itself smells like used oil and exhaust. Well, actually that last part is due to creative license. But, if there were baseball cards for pilots lost in time, I’m sure that’s what they would smell like.
Having said my goodbyes to the last ride of the morning, my mind drifted to Chici’s. Across the road from the airport was the best Cuban sandwich in town. I could almost taste the mustard when someone said “A FED is in there and he wants to talk to you”.
Most people tend to flip out when A FED shows up. Myself, I’m the opposite. Yeah sure, like everyone else I run the mental checklist to make sure I have everything I’m supposed to have but other than that, I really couldn’t care less. FEDs are, after all, just normal people with a penchant for polyester and a hard-on for paperwork. Humor them, make them feel like real people, act impressed with their knowledge of regulation minutia, and pretend that their attempts to fit in are working and they’ll pretty much always leave you alone. What most people seem to forget is that back at their office, the egg laying queen (you saw Aliens right?) is to them, what they are to us. Help a FED make the next level of incompetence happy and your life will be better for it. Got it? FEDs are people too.
Therefore, like so many times before, I set out to find THE FED. Yet before I could, he and his trainee found me. I wish I had a picture; right there in front of me was an image only government could create. A rather tall white guy wearing boots, a cowboy hat, and a Texas size attitude stood with the air of self-importance over a timid black man dressed in polyester, wearing a tie, and carrying a clip board. It was like being on the set of an Eddie Murphy movie.
While driving to Key West they had seen me fly over and turned around to let me have it. Apparently, the cowboy was sure he could accurately judge the altitude of a plane from a speeding car and was doubly sure I was too low. To prove it, he asked me how high I was. In complete shock that someone with such a great knowledge of regulation minutia and an impressive ability to fit in anywhere would ask me such a stupid question, I laughed. Looking back on it, I’m forced to consider that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to do. Yet like the title of Ernie’s book, Fate Is the Hunter.
Honestly, it wasn't on purpose. It just snickered out. Therefore, when he asked me what was so funny, I just answered his question; “High enough”. It seemed like a good idea at the time but the look in his eyes told me I would soon be punished. It’s bad juju to openly mock a cowboy in front of a black trainee, at least it was to him, and I could see he was going to make me pay for it.
Initially I kind of felt bad for the new guy. It was obvious the queen (Aliens, remember?) had placed him with this penis dressed as a cowboy and sent them away; most likely to get cowboy out of the office. Egg layers have jackass thresholds too. Therefore, when Neal the new guy (the trainee) asked me if he could look at my plane, I said yes. While doing so, Brokeback Bob did his best to impress me with the power of his title and distract me from what was going on. When it became obvious they were going to look the plane over until they found something, I walked away and went to lunch.
Back then, Chici’s Cubans were like crack with crystal meth sprinkles. You just couldn’t get enough and I had to get my fix. Now let’s take a break and ponder me doing crack with crystal meth sprinkles. It’s a good thing I don’t do drugs because I’m pretty sure none of you would want to experience that. Right? OK, back to the story.
Walking back in the door from Chici’s, someone said “That FED's looking for you again and he isn’t happy”. And once again, before I could find him, he found me.
“Where the hell have you been; it’s a good thing you showed up; I was just about to ground your plane” he said. Then I received an amazing lesson on FAA Constitutional interpretation. According to him, once he talked to me, he owned me and I had no right to leave until he told me so. After that, we grabbed a cup of coffee, chatted about the weather, and had a rather colorful debate as to who the #&%$ he thought he was. His answer: "The guy who found a problem with your plane".
Knowing that the Miami FEDs always traveled south on Friday so they could spend the weekend there on your tax dollars, I was doing my best to set them on their way. “Don’t you guys have an appointment in Key West?” “Yes we do but first we need to show you what we found”, said the belt buckle wearing erection. Walking around to the lower left wing, he said “My trainee noticed your aileron has a problem”. That’s when the timid black guy, with a huge self-congratulating smile on his face, reached for the aileron control link that connects the surface to the belcrank in the wing.

The official Stearman repair manual shows where the link fits into the picture.
 Grasping the zinc chromated part, he rocked it back and forth 1/8th of an inch or less in each direction. “See, something is obviously wrong with this part. It moves”, were his words. I honestly didn’t know what to say. He was dead serious but there was just one problem; that part has or is connected to bearings on each end that allow it to move like that. Yes, it was perfectly normal but it was clear they were going to try to make it an issue.
Turning to look at me, the cowboy said, “You’re lucky I’m not in the mood to ground your plane. Do what you want but that part has a problem”, and he turned to leave for Key West. That left me with a dilemma; replace it or not?
Walking by my friends who had gathered on the bench to watch this all go down, I could hear them laughing. Once Woody had left the building, I learned he had been building a wonderful reputation for himself. Having been run off from several FSDOs for being a trouble maker, he had landed in Miami and the word was spreading fast. Hearing this, I got nervous and went into my full-on the-best-defense-is-a-good-offense mode.
First I called a friend at the FAA. Yeah, I have (or had) friends at the FAA. Anyway, this guy looked at the double dog secret FAA computer and told me the cowboy had already added information about me. According to my buddy, it appeared he was hoping to get the next FSDO, where I hopped rides in summer, to serve me up a cold dish of trouble. Then I called an attorney. He assured me I was ok and said to call back if anything new came up. After that I called the head of the Miami FSDO.  Using my FAA buddy as a reference, I gave him a detailed dissatisfied customer report. Finally I got on the horn and ordered a new aileron link that was rebuilt with new bearings and freshly painted.
One of the great things about a Stearman is if something breaks you can get the part overnighted. The expense would be worth it. If the local Rodeo star were to show up early, I’d already have it fixed with yellow tag in hand. The balls were in the air. “Tomorrow”, I thought, “I’ll see where they drop”.
Jackasses have an uncanny ability to suck the fun from anything. The next morning was proof of that. Pedaling at an increasing rate, exotic plants, colorful birds, and the warm tropical air blew by without notice. Life in The Keys was, at that point, nothing more than life with a booted bureaucrat. Ten minutes later, the UPS guy waved me in front of his truck as he rolled into the airport. The first ball, the new part, had dropped right where I wanted and when.
Tony (The Key’s best mechanic), asked me what I needed and offered any required help. Once you leave the mainland, you are part of the team. Mainlanders need not apply and the locals do their best to keep them out. If you work for the government, your ranking as a human is at the bottom of the list. Your name, on the other hand, goes to the top of the most wanted. Therefore, anyone and everyone offered a hand that day. I had become a part of the team; for a while I was part of The Keys.
Lying under the wing, a bead of sweat rolled off face and onto my neck. Performing aviation’s version of arthroscopic surgery, I could understand why you always see that person in the movies whose job it is to wipe the surgeon’s brow. A simple linkage replacement becomes tortuous when time and nature’s coolant combine to piss you off. And yet I kept turning the wrench. My life, and the patient’s, depended on it.
Almost to the last thread, I could feel the bellcrank coming loose. From here on out the procedure would require spinning the nut off by hand, removing the bellcrank, disconnecting the the FED's favorite link, and then reversing the process with the new one. Reaching into the hole, my attitude improved. The idea the FED would come back early only to find it had already been replaced put wind in my sails although I couldn't believe a perfectly good part was being replaced just for him. All I had to do was rotate it one fuuull - "CLINK, THUMP, THUD, CLUNK" went something from inside the wing. The thud was the sound of whatever it was hitting my head before dropping onto the ramp.
I still have the parts.
“What the hell was that!". Rolling over to grab it, the bushed zinc chromate color tab confused me.  "That must have been in the wing for ages", I thought. “There’s no way that..”.   Then I looked up and saw reality. While removing the nut from the bellcrank bolt, one ear of the casting that holds it in place had fallen free. Likewise, the assembly had fallen loose in the wing. I was stunned. A critical flight control had just disintegrated while sitting on the ground.
Upon closer inspection, it had been this way for a while. Only a small hairline of fresh metal could be seen on the ear that bounced off my noggin. One good jolt was all that separated a good day from a bad. Thanks to chance and an over-zealous FED, it had been found with my butt planted on terra firma.
“High enough”; I knew it felt right. Was it not for that response, Cowboy Bob and his sidekick Neal may have left me alone. I have no idea how or why they decided to pick on that specific aileron link. The other moved the same but they said it was ok. Perhaps it was the shiny top side where the paint had worn on the edge of the spar. Or maybe it was because the left wing had all the patches from people getting in and out of the airplane. And maybe, just maybe, it was pure dumb luck. Whatever the case, Ernie was right.

A FED showed up to cause trouble, claimed something was wrong with the plane that wasn’t, and because of my zeal to shut him down, something potentially disastrous had been found.  Sometimes the cowboy gets you, and sometimes you get the cowboy. When it’s your time it’s your time and for the moment it wasn’t mine.

Note: Fred the FED, or Cowboy Bob as I called him, turned out to be the son of a man in congress. Whenever he would do something completely off the charts, they would ship him out to another FSDO instead of firing him. After I raised hell with everyone you could imagine, all the way to Oklahoma City and DC, I received a call from the Miami FSDO manager. He was sending an inspector who knew something about old planes down to see me and he would be sending the inspector in question with him. When they arrived, the guy who “knew something about old planes” stuck out his hand and said “Al Kimball”. He then proceeded to ask Bob, sans Neal, where the problem had existed. Walking around to the wing, shrinking in stature with each step, he pointed to the link and attempted to slander it. Al gave it a quick look then proceeded to give Bob a learn’n. To this day, it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed. Despite Al’s professionalism, every one of his words cut an inch off Bob’s legs. By the time they left, it felt like Al had brought a kid to my house to make him admit to and apologize for stealing something. Cowboy Bob and trainee Neal were never heard from again.

Aircraft note:  If you have a Stearman and your ailerons have ever been left without the control lock on, I highly suggest you inspect those bellcrank castings.  There was even a crack in the tab that broke off.  It went all the way through from the bushing to the apex of the piece.
What’s your "Fate Is the Hunter" story?

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