This is a blog containing the build history of an experimental home built airplane. The RV-7A is a two place, piston powered, low wing, tractor configuration, tricycle gear, aluminum and composite aircraft. The original purpose of this blog was to document the construction of my experimental category aircraft in order to satisfy the build log requirement for the FAA. Now it's just for the amusement of friends and family as I document some of our aviation experiences. For more information on the RV series of aircraft see www.vansaircraft.com.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

48 States part 2

Day 3, 17 July 2017

KAPA to MCK 1.3 hours, departing 10:15 MDT

We said our good-byes to our congenial Centennial host and good friend Melanie, by mid-morning Monday. She said she wanted to stick around after we taxied out to watch us take off.  I warned her that I would be on the radio for a bit before we taxied -- clearance delivery and all that.  Plus this was a busy airport and it might be a while before our turn to go, and further that the taxi to the departure runway would be fairly long and then I would be doing the run-up... Well, she was not impressed at all with my attempts to dissuade her.  I do know that she stayed long enough to see us taxi away because I got a text from her a little while later informing me that I had left Carol's folding step on the ramp.  Doh!

We were cleared to take off behind a Cessna 172 and we began our roll.  A few seconds later the tower controller asked me if I had the Cessna in sight. Affirmative.  I guess the rate at which I was closing on the Cessna made the controller a little uncomfortable.  I don't think I was even 300 feet off the ground and halfway down the runway when he came back on with "Left turn on course approved." That's what I was hoping to hear.  We were on our way.

Once we cleared the Denver class B airspace there wasn't much to do or look at.  The great plains stretched out to the far, far, horizon.  So much unobstructed space.  This is definitely not a place for the agoraphobic.  The area to the east of Denver is pretty arid, but agriculture eventually gained the upper hand as we flew east.

There was no one around when we landed at McCook Nebraska.  I went to check out the terminal building but it was locked.  Fortunately, there was an FBO next door that was open, but also deserted. They may have gone to lunch, I don't know.  In their hangar there were a couple of nice aircraft on display in addition to an old time John Deere engine on a cart driving a pair of ice cream makers (I'm guessing).  Anyway, I bought a soda and it was time to move on.  

McCook, Nebraska

MCK to KSDA 1.6 hours, departing 13:01 CDT

In the air again and now the ground below is more and more devoted to farming.  We change our altitude a couple of times to avoid lines of puffy clouds and before long we are passing just south of Lincoln Nebraska.  Crossing the Missouri River we descend into Iowa and our second state of the day.

Carol and I were particularly impressed by the little airport at Shenandoah Iowa.  It had tall corn growing right up to the runway and was reminiscent of  the "Field of Dreams".  I fully expected the Wright brothers or Amelia Earhart to come walking out of the corn.

I refueled and then met Carol inside.  There were cookies and I noticed that their A.C. worked beautifully.  We chatted a bit with the lady working behind the counter and then we were on our way once again.  This marked our first stop where we noticed an appreciable amount of humidity.

Shenandoah, Iowa

KSDA to KBUM to KPTS 1.7 hours departing 15:02 CDT

Departing Shenandoah we came close to colliding with a crop duster that was apparently not listening to the radio and had no qualms about crossing the departure end of an active runway at low altitude. We were climbing through 500 feet and we see him a few hundred yards out at our ten o'clock and just a little bit above.  I pushed over aggressively and he crossed directly over us left to right.  I looked back and he didn't waiver at all.  He probably never saw us.

Our next stop would be Butler, Missouri.  This marks a literal turning point in our route that has been mostly east up to now.  For the next segment, we would be traveling mostly south.  Looking down, there is a lot of green going on here.  It seems that every square inch is either cultivated or covered in trees.  A lush panorama and striking difference from what ones sees on the west coast.  During the California summer for example, the colors range from brown to browner.

As we neared Kansas City, I called approach to get flight following and perhaps a path through their class B airspace.  When I made the transmission, a message came up on my COM radio indicating the transmit power would be reduced due to low voltage.  I got no response from Kansas City approach so I turned my attention back to the low voltage.  Wait, what? Low voltage?

I have two independent means for measuring the bus (battery) voltage.  A panel mounted voltage display and my electronic circuit breakers (VPX sport) display the voltage through the Garmin Multi Function Display.  They both agreed the voltage was low, so the COM radio wasn't lying.  The voltage at this time was about 12.1V to 12.4V and bouncing around a bit.  The bouncing voltage was normal due to varying loads in the strobes and transponder.  The voltage level itself was not normal. It should have been north of 13.6V.  I shut off everything I didn't need and noted that the voltage level did not improve.  I also observed that the field circuit to the alternator was on, as it should be, but the amperage to the field seemed to be intermittent.  Resetting the field circuit did not clear the issue.

So we flew on and I skirted the class B airspace to the west side.  Our battery voltage was slowly going down.  The battery is not required for the engine to run so we were not in any immediate danger, but I was afraid that when I did shut down I would not be able to restart the motor.  We decided not to shut down when we reached Butler Mo.  We just did our full stop and moved on.

Butler, Missouri
Back in the air again.  Our final stop for the day was Pittsburg Kansas where we already had hotel reservations.  I think we were fortunate to stop here because the people here were so friendly.  Here I am heading for the tie down rack while the attendant fuels the plane.  I'm sorry that I can't remember his name, but he was very helpful.  He got us a courtesy car and brought it around to the ramp.  Then when I mentioned that I needed a A&P mechanic he offered us assistance in finding one.

Pittsburg, Kansas
That night I was worried about the plane, but after a nice dinner at a local steak house I felt full and that went a long way toward taking my mind off of the plane.  Following dinner, we drove through the town enjoying the midwestern-ness of it all.  Here we were, at the center of America, I thought. Although I come from California, I am not of California.  I think I could be at home here.  It was a pleasant evening.

Day 4, 18 July 2017

KPTS to KJLN .2 hours, departing 10:05 CDT

The first mechanic we contacted by phone agreed to look at it, but he was in a neighboring town.  No problem, I'll come to you.  We set a time to meet.  He called back a few minutes later and said he would not be able to get to it today.  Next.  So we called an FBO called Mizzou Aviation at Joplin Regional airport.  I spoke to Wendell and he said he would be able to get me right in.  Great, I'll be right over.  It's only 15 minutes by air.  By now the reader may be wondering why I need a mechanic at all, since I built the plane?  Well, I'm not necessarily an expert in alternators, I have no spare parts, and I don't have the aircraft schematic with me. 

When we arrived I again spoke to Wendell, the director of maintenance, describing the problem and he arranged to have the plane moved into their hangar.  Then he and I went to work removing the cowl. After some initial trouble shooting, his mechanic Bob shows up.  Bob had been away on some kind of checkout flight when I arrived and this seemed to irritate Wendell some, but I didn't mind because I was thrilled that we had someone finally looking at this.  While Bob and I continued the trouble shooting, Wendell was online getting a schematic for the Plane Power Alternator.  Now we were making progress!

We failed to find anything wrong so we removed the alternator.  Bob drove Carol and I into town where we had lunch while he took the alternator to a shop to have it tested.  The bad news was that the alternator tested OK.  So when we returned to Mizzou Aviation, Bob cleaned the alternator brushes and a bit of oil that had dripped on to it, ostensibly from a previous leak in the crank seal. There was also a matter of a loose binding post (B+ terminal) that was corrected.  No smoking gun though. Not even a gun for that matter.   At this point we reinstalled the alternator and the plane started without difficulty.  The voltage was correct (14V) and the battery was charging.   We reinstalled the cowl. Although I didn't have a warm fuzzy about the alternator, I think the old adage (re-tooled a bit) applies: if it a'int broke, you can't fix it.  I think Bob and Wendel did everything they reasonably could and I was happy to pay Mizzou Aviation for their time.

KJLN to KRKR to KDEQ to KATA 2.1 hours, departing 14:55 CDT

We departed Joplin in the mid afternoon heat and headed south.  We were happy to be on our way again and happy to have the alternator troubles behind us.  The air felt thick and humid and we were jostled by afternoon thermals as we made our way toward Robert Kerr airport in south eastern Oklahoma.  Nearing the airport we could observe some good sized hills to the north of Poteau.  This welcomed sight was the first sign of topography since we left Colorado.  We made our approach and landing at Kerr without seeing any other aircraft.   We were getting such a late start today we didn't deplane, electing instead to move on after snapping this photo of the terminal building.

Poteau, Oklahoma
Leaving Oklahoma, we added a little east to our southerly course to take us across the border into Arkansas.  We had a similar experience landing at De Queen, Arkansas as with Poteau.  No one visible, nothing heard on the radio.  It seemed like we had the state to ourselves.

De Queen, Arkansas
Shortly, we continued our trek south, crossing the Red River.  Based on the number of meanders we could see, I'm judging that this river might not be such a good choice for high speed transportation. As a matter of fact, because of this river's poor sense of direction, we would need to cross it again some 48 miles later.

It was around this time that the alternator started acting up again.  The battery would charge for a while and then it would discharge.  I was really hoping that we had this issue fixed when we left Joplin.  I am now prepared to attest that finger crossing is a fairly ineffective maintenance strategy.

Red River
It was beginning to get late and we needed fuel so we decided to top off at our next stop which would be in Texas.  We touched down at the Atlanta Texas airport after 5 pm local and pulled up to the self serve gas pump.  Here I am doing battle with it.

Atlanta, Texas
During the course of this trip, I found that there are about three different models of aviation gas pumps or should I say credit card kiosks.  The instructions vary a little at each one, so part of the fun was solving the gas pump puzzle.  Facing a new kiosk, I was often reminded of Monty Python's Holy Grail gatekeeper:

 STOP! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.

Well, fortunately for me, unlike some of the Grail seekers, I was not cast into the pit after failing the kiosk's tests.  After a sufficient amount of struggling I decided against risking the pit any further and instead I sought assistance from a gentleman working inside.  A gregarious man in his seventies, he seemed very interested in our trip across America.  I learned that he was very proud of Texas and didn't think much of Oklahoma.  I hate to think of what he thought of California.  Probably nothing I haven't thought myself.  Anyway, we chatted for a while inside and then he followed me out to the pump to lend his expertise.  I found out that he, in contrast to my own ability, was an expert at distinguishing left from right.  It seems that I had somehow become confused in my card swiping frenzy.  In my defense, I should point out that the credit card can be inserted in any of four different orientations.   Evidently, I was behind the eight ball before I even started.

Carol and I continued our chat with the helpful airport attendant while I filled the tanks.  Then it was time to go.  We launched for Ruston, Louisiana on runway 05, making a right turn on climb out to start eastward once again.

KATA to RSN .6 hours, departing 17:31 CDT

On the way to Ruston, I was working on a new plan to fix the alternator.  As a test, I would bypass the electronic circuit breaker controlling the field winding in the alternator.  This I thought, would eliminate the VPX (circuit breaker) from the circuit.  Divide and conquer, I thought.  My suspicion at this time fell on the VPX because we already looked at the connections under the cowl at Joplin and because I had to replace a VPX unit once before.  Well, at the very least, I had a plan.

Now I could divert my attention back to enjoying the flight and seeing how far we could get today before it got dark.  I think this was the Red river again.

There was a lot of cloud cover, but we still had plenty of room to maneuver.  We flew through a few showers, but nothing worrisome.  When we approached Ruston, the sky cleared and it became noticeably brighter outside.  I'm starting to think that we can make it to Hattiesburg, Ms.  That would only be one stop short of our original goal for the day.

Ruston, Louisiana

Having just fueled in Atlanta, Tx, we did not need to get gas here, but one of us decided the restroom sounded appealing, so we shut down and went inside.  There were a couple of kids, young men actually, working the desk. We chatted for a bit about our trip and the RV-7A.  Then, feeling sufficiently rested, we bid adieu and departed southeast. 

RSN to KHBG 1.3 hours, departing 18:45 CDT

There was a lot of moisture in the air with some really beautiful cloud formations.

Along this leg we crossed the Mississippi River whilst I was working on my next plan to fix the alternator or at least pin down the cause of the problem.

When we arrived at Hattiesburg the alternator had not been charging at all for the last half hour or so. Adding to my stress level was the looming darkness as we flew into the deepening twilight.  I was glad that Hattiesburg wasn't any further away.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi

It was a little after 8:00 pm local when we arrived.  We pulled up to the FBO, South East Aviation.  It was after hours so no one was around.  I unloaded the plane and tied down while Carol went to work trying to get us a ride into town.  We had the mobile hotspot and the laptop.  Online, she found two phone numbers for transportation.  There was no answer at one number and at the other they wanted $70 just to come out!  Looking at Google maps, we realized that the cab driver was probably thinking of another airport, Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional which was quite a bit further away.  Carol called again to explain that we were at Hattiesburg, Bobby L. Chain Municipal airport, 5.7 miles from downtown Hattiesburg.  Then began one of the more bizarre episodes of this entire trip.  

Several back and forth calls between Carol and the cab driver culminated with Carol handing me the phone.  "You talk to him!"  And so I did, and I soon found out that he didn't believe that there was an airport where we were.  It was now after nine pm and we were the last two people at the airport and we had no ride into town.  I assured the driver that there was in fact an airport here, with airplanes and everything.  We gave the driver the physical address and the Google directions from town and then he agreed to give it a try.  A little while later he called again and explained that he would be arriving in his personal vehicle in half an hour.

We waited on a bench just outside of the FBO while moths fluttered around the street light that was our only illumination.  We talked ever so briefly about walking.  

At last, we saw (and heard) him drive past us once.  We weren't sure it was him, but it was the only car that came close to us.  Another call, and soon he arrived.  When he pulled into the light, I had second thoughts about walking.  There it was, a ramshackle mid nineties Chevy Tracker.  Beggars can't be choosers, I thought, as I loaded our baggage.  Feeling vulnerable, I had played out all kinds of scenarios in my head while we waited for him to arrive.  Most of them didn't turn out well for us -- after all, no one knew where we were, least of all -- us.  Once I had a look at the car I became less concerned about getting robbed (or worse) and more concerned about just surviving the ride.  Carol got into the back seat and I took the passenger front.  The car was filthy inside and out. When I opened the doors there were empty bottles and cans on the floor boards.  The front passenger door was missing the inside door panel and the side window was stuck mid way up.  I wasn't sure what to hang on to as we left. The passenger seat back wouldn't lock in the upright position.   Rather than fully recline, I elected to keep myself upright by holding on to the roof through the partially open window.

We took off with a roar!  It seems that this hapless Chevy Tracker was also in need of a muffler.  The clapped out little Chevy lurched and rocked about when changing directions and shuddered when coming to a stop.

We tried to engage the driver with small talk as he negotiated the various turns and traversed the dark country roads.  When ever I could see a street sign, I made a mental note, thinking that I may need to tell someone where we are, or have been.  The ride stretched on much longer than 5.7 miles should have taken.  I had become  genuinely concerned.  

All of the concern was for naught though, as we soon popped out of the dark country roads and in to a brightly lit area.  Comfort Suites dead ahead.  What a relief!  I cheerfully paid the driver his asking price and added a nice tip.  I was so very happy at this moment that the ride was over and we were still alive.

When we finally drug ourselves and our luggage up to our room (elevator broken, room on 3rd floor) I had to look online to try and understand why the ride from the airport had taken long. Did we get ripped off beyond the dilapidated condition of our transportation?   It turns out that the mistake was mine.  Since we didn't know the hotel at which we would be staying, I had just consulted Google maps for the distance from the airport to the center of town. The hotels were actually on the other side of town more than double the distance that Carol and I were expecting.  It was now nearly 10 pm and we were exhausted, but it was nothing a little food and drink couldn't cure.

By truly miraculous happenstance, there was a Hooter's right next door.  My favorite!

Day 5, 19 July 2017

The next morning we were able to arrange for different transportation to the airport.  Strangely enough, our driver this morning was also unaware of the airport's location, at one point commenting on how she used to work a half mile short of the airport and never knew that it was there.

When we arrived back at South East Aviation we were greeted by a very friendly staff.  I arranged to have the plane fueled and I mentioned that I was having some trouble with my alternator.  We first discussed the getting a mechanic to come look at it, but then I explained that I already had a plan, but I would need some wire and things.

One of the owners then offered to drive me into town where I could procure the supplies.  As it turns out, we went to an electronics supply place owned by his cousin who gave me the the wire, butt splice, and ring terminal I needed.  It was very generous of both of them to help me out like this.  On the drive back from the airport, I had to mention how everyone we've met on this trip has really been over the top nice to us.  I don't think the FBO owner really understood what I was talking about.  It's just the way they are in the South.

Taking the cowl off under the hot midday sun was not how I pictured this trip going.  I applied my newly acquired supplies such that the alternator field circuit was bypassed, isolating the VPX circuit. After that I wasted no time in getting the cowl back on because it was hot.  Steamy hot.  One of very few things I don't particularly like about my airplane is how long it takes to get the cowl on or off. It's not like opening the hood of a car.  There are hard to reach screws and then there is always a knock down drag out fight to get the engine baffeling and the lower cowl to stop trying to occupy the same space. It's a struggle on a cool dry day in California.  Under the Mississippi summer sun, it's a death match.

With the cowl back on I slip back inside the FBO to enjoy their A.C. for a bit, to say my good-byes, and thank them for their terrific hospitality.

KHBG to 1R8 .6 hours, departing 13:01 CDT

We departed Hattiesburg and continued east, passing just north of Camp Shelby joint forces restricted airspace.  The alternator was charging the battery and I was convinced that our mechanical troubles were over.  The weather was scattered clouds at about 4500' with good visibility.  We were cruising happily along at about 3500' and I was thinking that we could probably achieve our mileage goal for the day.  Having an optimistic thought inevitably invites disaster in the same way tornadoes are attracted to trailer parks.  And so, it was about this time that the alternator stopped charging and the voltage level began its downward slide.  We had been in the air for only about a half hour.  We were almost all the way to Bay Minette, Alabama when we made this unhappy discovery.

Bay Minette, Alabama
The FBO at Bay Minette offered a buffet lunch and the place seemed to be completely staffed by young attractive women.  What a lucky find.  While we ate, we considered our options.  The alternator seemed to be intermittent and I hoped that we would be able to push on a little further while the weather was good.

1R8 to 2J9 1.2 hours, departing 14:23 CDT

And so we were airborne once again.  On this leg we would be crossing an area of intense military activity just north of Eglin AFB so I elected to get flight following.  The conventional wisdom concerning flight following is that it provides an element of safety to VFR flight because the controllers can give traffic advisories.  In addition, the controllers will know the destination of the flight following subscriber so he or she can better route traffic, keeping everyone safer.  It didn't really work that way in this instance.  My work load was substantially increased as I was handed off from one controller to another in rapid succession.  It seemed that new squawk codes were coming at me as fast as I could key them in.  I think there were 5 codes all together during the leg, but most of them came in back to back in just several minutes time. I don't know the reason for all this, but I won't do it again.  There were helicopters and airplanes crossing our path and my head was down too much of the time tuning the radio and punching transponder codes.  I did not feel safe.  I should have just told the fourth or fifth controller: "Flight following terminated, squawking 1200, good day."

Our next stop would be Quincy, Florida.  We buzzed along in between the scattered cotton ball like clouds, our attention was drawn to the thick blanket of vegetation that completely drapes the landscape of southern Alabama and Northern Florida.  At various points we can see though the trees, the specular reflection of sunlight and water that reveals the swampy terrain just below the forest canopy.  I tried not to think about all of the mosquitoes and alligators that may be watching us fly over.

We arrive at the Quincy municipal airport and taxi across the parallel grass strip to the fueling area. The airport is well maintained and has a pastoral feeling about it.  Once I shut down at the fuel pumps not a sound was heard, save a lawn mower in the far distance.

After I pumped the gas, I went into the nicely appointed pilot's lounge.  I found Carolina inside already well on her way to reversing the heat and humidity that she had accumulated since Bay Minette.

Shortly, we were joined in the terminal by two of the airport denizens who we happily engaged in small talk about our 48 state adventure.   Eventually, our issue with the alternator came up and the two them were all about helping us to get it resolved.  It turns out that there was a mechanic on the field and he was brought in for a consult.  He and I discussed the issue and we decided that we still had time to get technical assistance from Plane Power, the alternator's manufacturer.  I called twice, but my cell connection was not so good and both times we were cut off.  By the time I was about to call a third time on a land line, it was after business hours at Plane Power.  

Quincy, Florida
So here we were, only on our second state of the day and it was already after 5:00pm EST.  The gentlemen at Quincy really went above and beyond by offering us covered parking for the plane, a courtesy car, and a battery charger.  These guys were awesome.

So we elected to stay the night at Quincy and allow the battery to charge.  Then we left the airport and we drove the courtesy mini-van through the town of Quincy to a hotel a few miles away.  We planned to reconvene with the mechanic in the morning.

Whilst driving through Quincy one sees some beautiful homes reminiscent of the southern plantation archetype made familiar by Hollywood.  Large white painted homes with expansive front porches are visible through trees draped with hanging moss.  

Although I was looking at the beautiful homes in Quincy, my mind was fixed solidly on the alternator.  I reasoned that we had exonerated the VPX with the bypass I installed in Hattiesburg. And the Alternator and the cabling were examined at Joplin.  The battery has demonstrated its ability to charge and discharge normally.  So it's not the battery.  Either it's not broken or I've missed something.  I need a new plan. 

I began to speculate that the trouble with the alternator lies within its built in voltage regulator.  My theory was that the board is somehow damaged and failed with elevated temperature. This theory fit pretty well with all of the available evidence, but was by no means conclusive.  To test this theory I would need a new alternator.

At our hotel room I got online to see if a replacement alternator might be obtained at Aircraft Spruce. Their east coast location is (roughly) along our planned route.  We could stop there tomorrow morning.  Carol calls to verify that they have stock on the alternator and then places the order.

Uncharacteristically, I paid attention when the Joplin mechanic removed our alternator a couple of days prior. I realized while watching him that there was a wrench size I didn't have in my tool kit that would be needed to remove the alternator.  Also, I would need a butt splice and crimper to remove the unnecessary Hattiesburg bypass.  We found these items and more at the Quincy Walmart. We were ready for the new day and we had a new plan.

In the next post, we'll change direction and fly north for a while.

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