Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Vintage Biplane Gets Its Revenge - A Halloween Special

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa"
Fly old planes long enough and you’re bound to end up with some odd stories.  Due to their nascent engineering and all the souls that have touched them, weird things often pop up like practical jokes.  A few years back it was a Great Lakes that played one on me.
Not that long ago, I used to ferry a lot of antiques.  Phony real estate values and a nationwide reassessment of our lives triggered by 9/11 had everyone mortgaging their homes to buy planes.  Some were just buying what they previously could not afford and others were chasing dreams.  Whatever the case, a lot of planes were changing hands at ridiculous prices and most of the new owners needed someone to fly them home.  That’s where I came in.  One such flight involved a Great Lakes.
Starting later in the day than expected, and with little time left to get home, I looked the plane over without dwelling.  Thankfully, a great deal of information about its history had already made it my way and no time was wasted firing it up for departure.  Information or not though, there are some things you always check.  Having never even sat in a Great Lakes before that day, on the way out I triple checked everything.
Was the gear tracking straight, did the tailwheel feel ok, and was everything rigged correctly, went the questions in my mind.  Five senses gave me the answers and a sixth verified.  All was good and I took off.
During the flight I would eventually learn two things about Great Lakes.  One of them is that they are spectacularly second place airplanes.  Knowing that may sound a little negative, please understand it is not.  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I remember Road & Track doing a shootout between all the great exotic cars of the day.  Thrown in the mix, almost on a whim, was a De Tomaso Pantera.  Being the beginning of the Super Car Era, everyone was enamored with all the “exotics” which inherently ran engines built in far away lands.  The Pantera contained a Ford.
When the results of the competition were tallied, the writers were befuddled.  The Ferrari may have come in first in one category but the De Tomaso was second.  The Lamborghini came in first in another but the De Tomaso again came in second.  And so it went with nearly every aspect of the challenge.  And in the end nobody could deny the Pantera was quite possibly the best all around car of the bunch.  It hadn’t won a thing but it had placed high in everything.  That’s what the Great Lakes is, unremarkable in anything, but great at everything.  That was the second thing I learned.  

What was the first?  At least one of them is a practical joker.
Christmas gift alert - click here.
Cruising a little higher than usual to take advantage of a tailwind, things were going smoothly.  Below, rolling tree covered hills passed rapidly and I was happy.  I’ve never liked having limited options and the quicker I could get past that area the better.  Then, just as my eyes located the next “where I’d go” area, something tapped me on the back of my head.  I turned to see what it was.
Yeah, I realize that may seem funny but when something taps you on the head, airborne or not, you look.  Nothing was there.  Then it happened again; this time hitting the side of my head.  Turning quickly in the direction of the attack, no excuse for the mystery could be found.  "Oh well", I thought and flew on.
Maybe ten minutes later, another something hit me on the head.  Bouncing sharply off the canvas skull cap, it ricocheted over and forward into the cockpit flashing by the corner of my eye.  Looking around to see what it was did no good.  It had gone into the belly.  “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT”, I asked myself as I twisted to look for loose parts.  Everything was still there and firmly attached.
When it happened a fifth time the image of the Looney Tunes Gremlin went through my mind.  Someone was definitely having fun at my expense and I couldn’t help but laugh.  And yet, I had to find an answer so I turned to look again with the same results.  It was the strangest thing.  Twenty minutes later, whatever it had been wasn’t happening anymore.  Content to never know what it was, I relaxed.
Skirting under a cloud at the top of an updraft, buzzards surrounded me.  Enjoying the free lift they circled without care as the Great Lakes flew by.  Then “TWACK”, I was hit on the back of the head.  Equivalent to good a humored slap with a newspaper, at the moment it felt like an impact.  Jerking my hand back to feel for damages, I found nothing; no bird guts, no moisture, no dents, nothing.  My mind went wild.
Birds couldn’t fly fast enough, it wasn’t raining, and all the parts were still there.  What the heck was going on?
Considering all possibilities, I began to look for a place to land.  Something was definitely going on and if it turned out to be serious, I didn't want to have to think about where I’d go.   Then it happened again, “THWACK”.  Having begun watching behind me by looking at the glass in the instruments, I was even more startled to see nothing when I was hit.

“Was it a freak buffet created by this airplane”, I wondered.  My senses told me otherwise and in an effort to solve the riddle I let my mind consider anything and began to make plans to land.
Turning off course toward a field, something reached out and smacked me again.  This time though it was different; slapping my head continuously like someone playing the bongos.  It was starting to piss me off.

Behaving as a predator looking for the best moment to grab its prey, I took a deep breath and prepared to spring.  The plan was to move my head rapidly to one side and snatch it, whatever it was.  “OK, NOW”, went the dialogue in my head but by the time I had moved and my hand begun to reach, nothing was there.   Over my shoulder and into the cockpit something flew. I screamed; the plane banked.
Having allowed my mind to wander, this creature, several feet long with a leathery brown head, registered as a snake, chupacabra, giant rat of Sumatra, and all the monsters found after midnight on your local AM station combined into one.  Suddenly it was my turn and I slapped it hard as it leapt for my leg.  It wasn’t going to get me.  Fortunately, one good hit was all it took.  Well, all it took for my mind to catch up and realize what it was; the turtledeck headrest.  Then I laughed 'till I cried.
As with most biplanes, the Great Lakes airframe produces wildly varied airflows.  If you could see a wind tunnel test you’d be amazed they fly.  One such particular area is the point where air passes over the top wing and down toward the fuselage.  There, typically right behind the rear cockpit, some of the air turns forward.  It’s one of the reasons many old planes have the head rest.  In addition to the obvious, it keeps the wind from wearing you out while you fly.  But, if that headrest is held on with PK screws driven into wallered-out (technical term) holes, the same airflow can turn each stainless steel turtledeck fastener into a projectile aimed at your head.  I know this because we eventually found the one in the belly.
Like I said, fly the old planes long enough and you’re bound to have an odd story tell.  Fortunately, if you can get used to their practical jokes, you’re also sure to have a great time.  Just remember this; like humans, when you bore them, they act up.  Let’em sit and their joints get rusty.  Never leave the pattern and they'll break down when you do.  Cruise a Great Lakes straight and level for hours at a time and you’re sure to take a beating.  You’ve been warned!

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