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THE AUSTER HASSLE, part one

THE AUSTER HASSLE, part one

By Bill Berle

The Search

My story begins with the impossible, anguish filled search/circus we all go through. You know, the one where you have less money than you need, twelve conflicting requirements you need in an airplane, a stack of ten marked up Trade -a- planes, and a four hundred dollar phone bill . . . Well, my old '40 T-craft was the most trouble free airplane I've owned so I centered my search around another one. This of course didn't stop me from exploring several options that I never could justify in a million years, like $20,000.00 kits asking $150,000.00. Somehow I resisted the call of 99% completed or restored airplanes that would need another 99% to fly, and the nagging feeling that the money was burning a hole in my pocket and I just didn't need another flying machine. . . Bah!

 Fuselage! :: This Auster fuselage in Canada is nearly identical to what my first sight was of Dan Norton's Auster, in his backyard in Willcox, AZ

 


A call to the Taylorcraft association's Bruce Bixler about pre-war T-crafts resulted in my getting in touch with that fine veteran antiquer Chet Peek. The subject of the license built Taylorcraft "Auster" which I had seen for sale in Trade-a-plane came up, whereupon he informed me of another one for sale in Tucson. The name "Auster" was what the Romans called a warm southerly wind. Later on, I would find warmth indeed flying an Auster home. I contacted a nice fellow named Dan Norton and arranged to drive to Arizona to see this strange British contraption. What greeted me there was . . . a fuselage! It was about a hundred and ten with nuclear sunshine lashing at my head, and all I saw was a fuselage in a backyard with a tarp. "What am I doing here" number one (of many). We went to that greatest of aviation meeting halls (The one with the clown and the arches) to begin the negotiations and iced tea therapy. I informed my host that I would be interested in buying the airplane, but only if it would fly home. I have owned four racing gliders and a formula one Cassutt and I did not care to ever see an airplane trailer again in my lifetime. Some of you know. In the crushing heat of June 1992, in Tucson, the deal was forged.


The Big Trip, two weeks later

"No, I'll be returning from Tucson by air, but not on your airline." The ticket agent looks at me funny. "I'm acquiring a small airline of my own." She looks at my $20 jeans and coach ticket, but the tiny computer in her head clicks the "smile" command just in time, and I slither away grinning wildly. An hour later I'm cruising along in the airliner's part of the sky, thinking about the enormous gulf that separates the 737 and the Auster not only in size, but in the frame of mind you fly with. There will be no microscopic foil packets of peanuts served inflight in the Auster, but I may very well have to enjoy those same tidbits for breakfast under its wing, waiting for the weather. Flying is full of ironies like that. Next morning Dan drives me from Tucson to Willcox, Arizona. The first catastrophe is that the steerable tailwheel has not arrived by UPS at the house yet. I'm not going to fly home with no insurance and a funky old airplane and no paperwork and no tail steering! It seems that the English can do with castering tailwheels as well as warm beer. It's July first.

We arrive at the airport to find an intact, assembled airplane - surprise. After a cursory inspection, I am pleased to find that Dan Norton's workmanship on the wings was as good as the fuselage. The Auster was very thoughtfully designed with several zippers sewn into the fabric for inspection, and Dan put them all back in their places, doing a fine restoration. We decided to start the engine (which reminded me that he had said the original battery had gone to meet Elvis), which we managed to accomplish by hand with a good bit of sweat. However, the first gremlin assault began immediately - no oil pressure!

After going through a minor nervous breakdown, we explore the oil pressure gauge and its line and find nothing. Dan attempts to calm me by saying that probably the line had air in it, and the pressure would come up on the next start. I launched into a tirade about forced landings in the desert, a subject that I am charmingly well versed in. We start the engine a second time, and after twenty years the oil pressure jumped up to a solid 40 lbs. I was relieved. The battery was the next item of annoyance, and of course we went into the local auto parts store for a replacement. The neurosurgeon on duty could not deal with simply finding a good battery of the same outside dimensions; his brain circuit just kept resetting to “what type of car do you have?”. I finally told him that we were restoring a rare old British sportscar to enter in the transatlantic underwater race, and that the competition was getting the jump on us because they had the Dilithium Crystals in their car and I was going to marry the heir to the Delco fortune if I won the race. He looked at me wide-eyed and asked if he could just find a battery the same size as the weird one we brought in. I scratched my head a while before saying that it was a great idea and we might get by that way. Then he made us give him the Auster battery for a core deposit!

The second day in Willcox was spent on the tailwheel. Santa had delivered the box from Univair late the day before, and with a good poke from the airport drill press it accepted the original mounting bolt and looked perfectly at home on the old bird. There being no bellcrank on the rudder near enough to drive the tailwheel arm, I called upon an engineering firm that has been involved with many of my projects, Rube Goldberg Inc., engineer at large. I rigged up sort of a long "Y" connection off of the rudder cables that was scary looking but worked fine.
 Cirrus :: The Blackburn Cirrus Minor 2a, an engine accused of 100 horsepower, but which was not guilty of the crime


At 4:30 on the afternoon of the next day we cranked up the Blackburn Cirrus Minor IIa, and I taxied the airplane around for a bit to check the steering and brakes. Everything worked up to par... so I taxied down to the runway and figured that I needed to see if this airplane flew before paying for it… and down the road we went. After becoming accustomed to the ten pounds of right aileron needed for level flight, I soon realized that the old girl wasn't climbing above pattern altitude. I had found the critical density altitude was indeed the pattern altitude. The overwhelming joy of flying such a rocket was gently interrupted by my old acquaintance the oil pressure gauge, reading 20lbs. In a burst of good judgment, I pulled the plug and landed immediately. "What am I doing here" #2 and counting. It seems that the Cirrus Minor had not been informed that it was not in chilly old England anymore, and was showing its displeasure by overheating and dropping oil pressure. On short final I had cut the magneto switches to minimize any chance of damaging the engine, and there we sat in silence in the middle of the runway. Dan walked out to see what happened, then we talked for awhile about this jewel of an airplane. We agreed it was too hot to push the thing back to the tiedown, so I climbed back in to restart and taxi back. Dan walked back to his car, undoubtedly praying to the spirit of aviation that I would still buy the plane. I tried for ten minutes to hot start that infernal machine. After a bit of ranting and raving to my audience of sage and cactus, we pushed it half a mile and tied it down. I added "why was I born" to "what am I doing here" and retreated into the ice chest thoroughly defeated.

 

I can only blame heatstroke if you ask why I wanted to believe that the cause of the oil pressure falling was that I had taxied too long in the heated afternoon air. You see, there was this old I.A. who had rebuilt an Auster long ago. He was the only I.A. for miles, and the F.A.A. wanted a signature before they issued a ferry permit. He had been kind enough to inspect the beast early that morning, finding the same excellent rebuild that I had. After signing on the dotted line, he left for home only to return later after seeing the test flight from his porch. He says that in this heat and altitude any old engine is going to lose pressure, and he figures it's okay to fly it down to 18 or 20 lbs. if it's a steady reading. I told him that he could be steady on his porch but I would be flying at 800 feet over a snake infested desert all the way to California. Later that night I broke down and bought the airplane; it flew, and that was the deal. Deep down I knew that it was a solid airframe and a great rarity among airplanes in America, but the Auster Hassle was indeed getting a bit much for my patience. Little did I know.

July 4th, 1992 The first leg of the trip

Early on that morning, we drove down the long road to the airport so I could consummate this episode and bid farewell to Willcox, Az. forever. The engine started with a growl that made me feel less apprehensive about the ferry flight. The night before I stayed up for hours planning the legs of the trip, fuel consumption, and of course the names and numbers of every tow truck and mobile repair service in southern Arizona. At this point I had also called poor John Morris again to whine and cry about everything. John is the owner of the only other flying Auster in the country, and was abused with constant phone calls by me at every minute juncture of this comedy. I would have quit many times if not for him, and his is the kind of spirit that makes oddball airplane owners a family to depend on. John supplied me with the names and numbers of all the EAA chapters on my route home, so that I might become a complete nuisance to them as well should the old Cirrus engine decide to expire. The happily purring Cirrus lulled me into complacency, though, and coupled with the probable cure of the aileron force convinced me it was time to get out of Dodge. While waiting for the gas attendant to wake up, I had called on that other caped hero of aviation, and my personal mentor, Duct Tape Man, to solve the trim problem. The Sticky Crusader and I adorned the ailerons with large scrap wood sticks that became brilliant, improvised trim tabs -- and down the road I went.

Much to my chagrin, the trim tabs only took out half the problem. A steady push on the stick was needed at all times, and the climb rate was sorry indeed. It took thirty miles to get to 6500 msl, from a 4400 foot start. I took a longer way around to the East of the Tucson ARSA that put me over unfamiliar and un-landable terrain. I had long since resigned myself to fly as though the engine were about to quit always, and when the oil pressure began to creep downwards about fifteen miles out, it became more of a possibility than a precaution. We sailplane pilots learn a very different way of flying, constantly altering course and strategy in deference to the safe landing spots within our glide range. This is completely foreign to 99% of the pilots in the country, but it's the way of life for the few of us who soar. I flew relaxed when over fields and within range of strips, and nervous when over open desert. A North/South river valley provided a safe path over farms and duster strips for a while, as promised by the airport manager at Willcox while gassing up. Then came a left veer to head Northwest on course toward Marana Airpark, the well known breeding ground for all forms of clandestine aviation sorcery that our tax dollars pay for. On the way there, I pass over the Biosphere project at Oracle, AZ. and its very inviting graded dirt strip. This is the place where people are living in an artificial environment for years without being able to leave. Hmmm. . . sounds like how I grew up around showbiz.

The fuel gauge is almost as trustworthy as the local politician, so I went a bit conservative on the trip planning. My first scheduled stop is at Buckeye, but the oil pressure is below 25 lbs. passing Eloy airport. I think about landing at Eloy, but there are many farm fields between it and Casa Grande, and I have an old glider friend there if I need any help. Besides, I had to force-land at Eloy once in a sailplane race and it cost me a lot of points; I don't like it 'cause of that. We enter the pattern at Casa Grande just before 9am in 90+ degree heat with 18 pounds of oil pressure. It's time to cool off the pilot and engine and do a safety check of the whole contraption. Boy did it have time to cool.

The Exploding Cigar

Casa Grande airport was near deserted on July 4th, and justifiably so. At barely nine o'clock it was very warm and still, and I must have presented quite a lovely fashion statement when I crawled out of the Auster in shorts and a t-shirt drenched with nervous and heat sweat. I took the side panels off the cowling to cool it off and proceeded to look for the keeper of the avgas. When I found him, he was obsessed with telling me how lucky I had been to land at that particular time, as it was a holiday and all Americans should be having a barbecue. I said that I was having a fine barbecue myself on Independence day, with sun dried and roasted pilot and probably fried engine as the main course, and perhaps would he be a good patriot and add some fuel to the fire? His being irked was suddenly halted when he saw the airplane itself. Resplendent in its Stits silver and brown primered cowl, it made him rotate his head slightly to starboard like a dog confronted with a spinning gyroscope. I got the gas and prepared to depart this place too, since it was now well on its way to 100 degrees and the charm of this place was dwindling. After the first twenty minutes of trying to start the engine I was asked to roll the plane back a few yards from the pumps.
After the second twenty minutes I had that sick feeling that only airplane buyers can know. The feeling that you have just made an error which cannot be measured, the former owner wetting his pants with laughter and yelling "Drinks for the whole house!" hundreds of miles out of your grasp. I think only oddball airplane lovers can have that kind of emotional breakdown standing in the blistering sunshine in Arizona on the Fourth of July -- the Exploding Cigar feeling. It became obvious that the thing to do was to roll the plane under one of the shade hangars and look for the problem. Another minute of swinging the prop in that heat and I would have been in serious trouble. Just before that, a few members of the Saturday Board of Directors came out of the woodwork to scratch their heads and offer advice. You know, the guys at every small airport in the country who tell old war stories and lies from the bully pulpit of a folding chair. They can also be the saviors for pilots in need of help in a pinch -- my hat's off to all of you everywhere.

Enter Sonny Zapata, a late 30ish Mexican-American driving a funky old pickup. He had a great big smile, and gave an instant good vibe that he knew what he was talking about. He looked at the airplane like a cat circling a birdcage, and he dove into the engine compartment for clues. Already at the end of my rope, I had little objection when the tools came out and we checked to see if a spark was being generated in the ignition system. In a word, no. There was a very weak spark on one mag and none on the other. We couldn't figure out how the plane flew in without ignition trouble earlier that day, but aviation sometimes doesn't care whether you figure out anything. At four o'clock, and after fidgeting with the thing for hours, I knew what had to be done; it was time for surrender. Sonny had agreed to fix the magnetos if he could, and ship them to me in L.A. if he couldn't. I had a secret weapon at home in the person of Ed Clarke, the well known expert on De Havilland Gipsy engines. My junk was removed from the rear seat, the airplane was cursed thoroughly, and we went slinking away in defeat. I was deposited in downtown Casa Grande at a convenience store. It was at the peak of the day's heat, maybe 110, and there I stood looking at my only weapon, the telephone. Well, my "best laid plans" fell through completely when the aforementioned old glider pilot friend was nowhere to be found. I called another couple in L.A.who are very close friends ( I had conspired with his wife in secret to con him into buying a sailplane), and might be able to help in some way. I briefly thought about that noble American institution for the troubled and broken-hearted, Greyhound, but remembered that it was a holiday. The weight of the world and a good bit of depression was upon my shoulders, and realizing full well that I was physically and emotionally exhausted, I decided to find a place to crash. I went walking down main street until arriving at the Sea Tay Motel.

The fellow with no teeth and a flat top haircut relieves me of a very disturbing sum of money, and I call my friends back with my location and number, and then flop down on the bed. Half an hour later, I'm in the swimming pool attempting to use it as a bathtub. Flat top's wife calls out to me that there is a phone call for me. I shout back "if it's Raquel Welch again, ask how the hell she got this number". She looks at me funny. The voice of my friend on the phone is screaming "Bill! the buses run on July 4th! The last one for Phoenix leaves Casa Grande in an hour and you have a reservation on the next one after that from Phoenix to Los Angeles!" A few minutes later, Flat top loads me into an unspeakable station wagon and drops me off at the bus station with a cavernous smile. And no refund on the room. I find myself completely alone at a "closed till 9am" downtown bus stop sitting on an inverted garbage can with an overnight bag and a flight case. It looked just exactly like a country & western music video, except I had no guitar to play and no one with large breasts drove up to offer me a ride.

The Bus, The Baby, and The Flake

Right on time, with its noble speeding grey dog painted on the side, the bus rolled in. An hour's ride to Phoenix went by peacefully, after we drove right past the airport where my airplane sat gloating as I went by. At the Phoenix depot, another cigar exploded; the bus for L.A. leaves in six hours and it gets in at 4:45 am the next morning. Part of the time is spent arranging to be picked up at the downtown L.A. depot, a delightful scenic area of the city characterized by machine guns and graffiti. I contact a friend who wakes up at those hours, a person whom I not only introduced to aviation, but sweated through building most of his Long-EZ airframe with him at all hours. He agrees to meet me at the bus station, as I am tapped out on funds after this fiasco. Several grueling hours later, it is announced that the bus is oversold, and it was everyone for themselves, and would everyone please form a line. At that point, I would have pulled anyone's lungs out who told me I had no seat.

Did you ever know that the bus seat was designed to stop people from sleeping? It was a triumph of design that at the same time irritated my skin, caused profuse sweating, and provided no comfort. The air conditioning on this bus was not even close, and the icing on the cake, of course, were the crying babies. You can get used to one kind of sound from a five year old, but at the exact time your mind blissfully removes it from consciousness a pair of eight year old twins begins arguing over chocolate milk in Spanish. Tuning that out to return to your own anguish and discomfort is possible with difficulty... until the two year old screams for five minutes solid. I turn around in the seat; obviously this child has been separated from its mother. To my surprise, I see the mother, oblivious, reading a magazine while the child sounds like a horror movie scream. I smile and pull out the flashlight from the flight case, and shine it brightly into her eyes. She is now unable to read the tabloid, and mutters something I'm suspicious is a curse, whereupon I point to the baby and say something I'm sure is a curse. She picks up the little urchin, who becomes calm immediately. The flashlight goes out, and I congratulate myself on a splendid negotiation. The bus arrives at the station at 4:40 and I walk out into the masses to look for my savior. Twenty minutes later I collapse alone against the wall outside, more than one tear rolling down my cheek. A drug dealer lurks nearby. I have three dollars in my pocket, and it's time to go home.

The taxi driver informs me that it will cost fifteen and change to reach the other side of the city. I tell him that I came all the way from Arizona to congratulate my sister on the lottery ticket and I must get there before she awakes -- she'll be so surprised! With a most interesting smile, he beckons me into his car, his mental wheels spinning faster than the cab's. When we get to my apartment building, I tell him that sis has won either $10 in cash or a trip to Disneyland, and I'm here to root for the trip. The security guard loans me the money and I go upstairs and sleep for a whole day.