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Bendix Stromberg and the Paranoid Terrorist Hot Dog Attack !

Bill Berle

May, 2005

 

Van Nuys, California, May 15, 2005. I’m concentrating on holding a radio wire plug in just THAT position, to stay in contact with the world’s busiest general aviation tower. I have the squelch off; the loud hiss verifies that I’ll hear the tower scream at me to get out of someone’s way. I’ve had intermittent and precarious communications with them at best. I am acutely aware that my airplane and I are out of place here, and that my jury-rigged handheld radio could cause an unwanted game of “chicken” between me and any number of Gulfstreams and Learjets that do belong here. I’m cleared to cross the huge runway where a B-17and a B-24 have just departed, then taxi onto the smaller runway (that is still ten times too big for my featherweight airplane), and then take off. A few moments later I push the throttle forward and then push the steering wheel forward too. The round control wheels on a pre-WW2 Taylorcraft look like something that should be steering a boat. The tail comes up, I let it accelerate for a few hundred more feet, and I start pulling the wheel back to lift off. Just as the plane starts to get light, the engine quits.

 

The throttle is pulled back and the takeoff hastily aborted. A taxiway branches off the runway, but it’s coming up too fast. The next taxiway off the runway is too far…if the engine stops cold I’ll have to push the plane off by hand. I get on the brakes hard, and wrestle the plane back from the edge of flight to walking speed in a few seconds. I turn off the runway, and make a garbled radio call, asking to go back to the ramp with a “fuel problem”. I start across the big runway, but suddenly see that the taxiway does not go across to the ramp. For a long, panicked moment I’m stuck in the middle of an airliner sized runway, and have single-handedly brought Van Nuys airport to a standstill. Somehow in the back of my mind at a time like this, I can already hear the FAA paperwork shuffling. I can see the headlines “One idiot in a rickety old airplane ends private flying in California…tickets to the public stoning only $5!”

 

I stand on one brake and spin the T-craft around, gun what’s left of the engine, and taxi back off the main runway. I find the right taxiway and slither away from both runways as fast as I can. I’m angry, frustrated, mystified, and thankful it quit on the airport instead of over the surrounding city. With the engine still running at idle, I go right back to where the problem started over an hour before. Unbeknownst to me, there is a professional aircraft accident investigator watching the incident from the sidelines, hearing the engine failure and watching the smoke coming off the brakes. The Grim Reaper and the accident investigator are surely smiling to each other, “Lucky idiot…we’ll get him next time”

 

The story begins 3 months ago, when I bought a 1940 Taylorcraft on the Washington / Oregon border. As promised, it did indeed run like a top while I spent more than a few hours flying over un-landable terrain. Places like the North Pacific coastline, with the waves crashing against the rocks. Places like the California Pine forests. Places like the San Francisco Bay. The little Continental 65 just purred along, instilling in me a feeling of trustworthiness. The sixty-fives are known to do that.

 

Our local EAA chapter was putting several airplanes on display at the Van Nuys Air Fair. Van Nuys was once the busiest GA airport in the world, but in the last decade has become the center of the private jet universe for the Los Angeles area. Lightplane owners are fighting to keep a foothold on the field, but are now in the minority. For all intents and purposes it’s a regional hub for big airplanes, except on Air Fair day when they allow little pipsqueak antique planes like mine to be there. The EAA chapter president asked if I’d bring out the little T-craft, as a representative of the new “Light Sport” category. Despite a balky radio system that was giving me fits, I made the 5 minute hop from my home airport to Van Nuys.

 

 Alycia and Bill with the Taylorcraft, on display at the Van Nuys Air Fair 2005... about an hour before the FIRST engine failure.

The display day was a big success. Hundreds of people admired my flying senior citizen, little kids sat in it, and hundreds were offered free “Young Eagle” flights. At the end of a long hot day, it was time to take the T-craft back home. After the ritual of hand-starting it, awkwardly climbing in, and taxiing for a minute, I stopped to allow a Coast Guard helicopter take off. I gave it at least 500 feet of breathing room. You see, the Taylorcraft weighs less than 800 pounds empty. One pull of the “collective pitch” lever on that monster would have sent us tumbling across the concrete ass over teakettle.

 

The helicopter leaves, and I start to taxi, when the engine sputters and dies. A bolt of shock paralyzes me for a few seconds, because this engine is just not supposed to do that! I look at the fuel valve and ignition switch, nothing is out of place. My mind searches for answers as I go through the uncomfortable process of getting out of the airplane. Water in the gas…broken ignition switch…bird flew into the air filter…empty fuel tank…but none of those seem likely. The engine stopped as though I had turned off the fuel supply myself. My fuel test cup quickly eliminates water as the villain. Vapor lock? It has been pretty warm today…maybe that’s it. Not having any other likely suspects, I decide to re-start. A crew member from the B-24 holds the tail while I swing the prop, and the airplane starts right up. Problem solved, I smile to myself, and crawl back in to the plane.

 

The radio problem, however, has gotten worse. The headset wire is loose, and it takes pressure to hold it so I can hear anything. At a big-airplane airport like Van Nuys, a sweaty, tired, greasy pilot trying to communicate (with a Rube Goldberg radio lash-up in a 65 year old airplane) is quite frowned upon by the pressed white shirts and epaulets sitting in air conditioned jets. It’s time for me to go home, back to the aviation equivalent of “the other side of the tracks”. The ground controller clears me to the nearest runway, which is the big one. I taxi to the hold short line and do a quick runup and mag check, still not completely happy. Just as I ease back the throttle and switch to the tower frequency, the damn thing quits again. The prop stops, and there I sit in silence. (Actually not quite silence, but I can’t print the language I was using) I can’t afford the time to think about why it died, because I need to get this…inconvenience… off an active taxiway. Did I mention the Hellcat and the T-28 that were sitting there, growling at me with disdain? This time I leave the cockpit in too much of a hurry, and bash my head on the door opening on the way out. Both of C. G. Taylor’s famous airplanes, the Cub and the T-craft, are not exactly graceful to get in and out of. I can hear old C. G. laughing from the clouds as I push the airplane, scurrying off the taxiway like a cockroach trying to live another day. I huff and puff the airplane onto a nearby parking ramp, and wisely decide to stop this accident before it happens.

 

Enter El Presidente....
My cel phone is the only useful weapon I seem to have at this juncture, and I summon Field Marshal, President For Life Charlie Ducat (pronounced “duck-it”), the president of our local EAA chapter. Charlie is still on the airport, helping take down our display booth. At least he has a car and access to some tools, as well as a Bonanza and a lot of experience with mechanical things. He’ll be “right there in a few minutes”, which makes me feel a lot better.

 

Enter Dangerous Dan...
While I’m standing there looking like a disheveled street bum, a fellow drives up on an electric utility cart. “Need some help?” was his greeting, which was a silly question. For here was a broken down old airplane and it’s broken down owner, scratching his bruised head trying to figure out why it won’t run. The look on his face told me that 1) he knew damned well that I needed help, 2) that he’d seen this kind of situation once or twice before, and 3) that he was probably in a position to offer a little of that desperately needed help. Dan Dupre, I would find, was a long time resident of Van Nuys airport, and had a million hours of flying, instructing, owning and maintaining everything from Cubs to Constellations. He was also precisely the kind of unofficial ‘airport mayor’ you need in this type of situation.

 

Charlie showed up about then, and off we went. Dan was driving his electric cart, Charlie was in the co-pilot seat, and I was sitting on the back holding the Taylorcraft’s tailwheel. We drove around to Dan’s hangar, which was a combination of maintenance depot, junkyard, well stocked and scratched up refrigerator, airplanes hanging from the rafters, toolboxes, and workbenches not visible under years of service manuals and countersunk screws. You can’t have that kind of place until you’ve paid your dues on an airport for decades. Perfect. This was the right guy.

 

Charlie drops a bombshell immediately. It seems that another EAA chapter member, Tom Hastings, has had the same problem. Tom has a Cirrus VK-30, arguably the biggest, baddest, and most complicated homebuilt airplane you could build. He started it, taxied about a hundred feet, and the engine quit. He re-started, taxied some more, and it quit again. Using the emergency fuel boost pump, Tom managed to taxi across the airport to his parking spot, and was now faced with his own investigation. Charlie had developed a very disturbing theory. It was far too much of a coincidence for us to have the same problem on the same day. Both planes were parked next to each other, at a public display. The night before, there had been a public party and USO show, and the airport police had not roped off or secured the display parking. Anyone could have just walked up to them that night. There are lots of crazy people, Charlie postulated, and someone could easily have done this on purpose. Sabotage!

 

He explained just how easy it would be to create this exact situation… you could take a napkin, a piece of a hot dog, a sock, whatever… and put it in the fuel tank. As the plane moved, this object would roll around and eventually be drawn to the bottom of the tank, where it would clog the outlet and kill the engine. When the engine stopped, the object would be able to float away, and the engine could be started again. You’d never know when the object could kill the engine, and you might never figure out where it was coming from after the object floated free. Both planes were safely operating the day before, and although completely opposite levels of complexity, both planes had the same problem on the same day. “There are some real nut cases out there,” Charlie reminded us, “and thousands of people were in and around all the airplanes. I don’t want to sound like an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory, but everything that happened could be explained by sabotage or some stealth terrorism…”

 

I have a couple of ex-girlfriends who would be somewhat cheerful if I were no longer living. But neither of them would want to hurt perpetual nice-guy Tom Hastings. Tom and I have different religious backgrounds, and the current flavor of terrorists would be gunning for me far more than Tom. My mind reels … had someone really tried to crash private airplanes using a piece of an airshow hot dog? It seemed ridiculous.

 

At Dan’s hangar, we took the gascolator and screen out. I was praying to find a bowl full of water, feathers, bird poop, or dirt. At least that would explain the failure, and get the problem solved. No such luck. The gascolator was clean as a whistle. Then I took out the small filter screen from the Stromberg (later Bendix-Stromberg) carburetor. This was also clean, and also bad news. We were looking for something, anything, that we could point at and say “A-HA! That’s the problem!”, but we didn’t find it. Then we turned on the fuel valve, holding an aircraft grade coffee can under the hose per long-held tradition. The fuel flowed profusely, which was more bad news. Now most of the suspects had been eliminated from the crime investigation. All that was left was the carburetor itself, and the terrorist hot dog weapon.

 

The consensus was that we had verified fuel flow, no blockage of the screen filters, no water in the gas, and only an unlikely possibility of a bad carburetor or intentional sabotage. The consensus was also that we should put the cowling back on, see if it would run, and try to fly it back home if it did. The 8,000 foot runway would offer a safe place to glide back down if the engine died again.

 

The airplane started up again just fine, and my two cohorts watched me run it for ten full minutes. It ran perfectly, so I shooed them away, and prepared for the radio battle. This time, they cleared me across the big runway, onto the small GA runway, and bid me a sincere (though crisp) farewell. I couldn’t agree more, and next time I come back here I’ll have all my !(#% together. But alas, I had no more luck this time than I had before. The takeoff was aborted, the brakes burned up, and I was back in the debt of Dan and Charlie.

 

Enter Helicopter Gary...
Gary is a well known icon at my home base, Whiteman airport. An IA mechanic, fellow T-craft owner and military veteran, Gary has a wealth of experience, with a lot of it around Taylorcrafts and Continental engines. He was one of the first people I told when I got my airplane, and he mentioned that it might be a good idea to take off the carburetor and let him look at it. “Those old Stromberg carburetors don’t get good maintenance anymore, Bill,” he said, “and people screw them all up trying to get them to work. I’ll take a look at it for you because I want you to have a good flying airplane that is reliable…” Although I was thankful that an expert on this carburetor had offered me such a gift, the plane had run fine for a thousand miles and I figured that the inspection could wait.

 

Until the Van Nuys airport fiasco, that is. It all hit me at once… the guy I bought the airplane from admitted he had used car gas “from time to time”. In order to use car gas, you had to change the carburetor needle and seat, so somebody might have worked on it that wasn’t qualified. Car gas was fine 30 years ago, but letting your children walk to school alone was safe 30 years ago too. The crap in today’s car gas does not sit well with yesterday’s airplane engines. Maybe the “terrorist” trying to kill me was only the backyard mechanic who “adjusted” the carburetor so it could run car gas.

 

So I brought up the subject of Helicopter Gary to Dangerous Dan, and sure enough they knew each other very well. Matter of fact I can’t print the greetings they exchanged, but suffice it to say they had a bond of friendship and respect that went back 35 years, deep into a jungle that I only knew from TV. We told Gary the story, and he made me an incredible offer. Bring him the carburetor, and he’d loan me a newly overhauled one to put back on till we could figure it out. He didn’t have to say it twice. I asked Dan if there was a place I could keep the T-craft overnight. I didn’t feel comfortable just parking the T-craft outside with no tie-downs available. Thankfully, he had flown T-crafts too, and knew how I felt.

 

A nearby corporate hangar door opened as if by magic. The hangar raised itself up six inches off the earth, and then quietly tip-toed it’s way over to the airplane, sat back down on the ground over the Taylorcraft, and closed it’s door for the evening. It seems that C. G. Taylor (and perhaps other still-living aviation spirits) had smiled on me once again.

 

Enter the Supportive Wife...
My beloved Alycia, who by now is used to my adventures, was brought back into play. She’d already done her duty at the Air Fair, providing invitations for kids to fly with us in the Young Eagles program. I had sent her back home to relax after a long day, feed the dog, and take a break for a few hours. She’d come get me at Whiteman when I got there with the plane. Instead, I had to tell her I had mechanical problems, the engine quit on takeoff, I was OK (Really, sweetie, I’m fine, don’t be upset, I told you I’d be careful), and that she should pick me up at Van Nuys.

 

I spent an hour removing the old carburetor, then another hour hangar flying with Charlie and Dan. Gary said he’d meet me at his hangar tonight, so I could go back with the loaner and fly the airplane out tomorrow. Alycia arrived with a smile about 9:30, and whisked me off to Whiteman airport. Sure enough, my good fortune continued and there was Gary with a gleaming replacement carburetor in a plastic bag. We spent another ten minutes in my hangar assembling a tool kit. After a quick starvation-burger, Alycia drove us back home and I passed out within five minutes.

 

Enter Mark Platt, Official Crash Investigator...
The phone rings at 8AM to my clear annoyance. I’m still fast asleep, dreaming of escaping the horde of hot dog wielding terrorists in my smooth running little Taylorcraft. It’s Charlie on the phone, telling me that his close friend Mark, code name “crash”, happened to be at the Air Fair yesterday. He was sitting on his motorcycle at the public observation area to watch the warbirds take off, and he had witnessed my Keystone Cops takeoff. Mark informs me that he saw smoke coming out of the brake drums, and heard the engine die. His opinion matched those of Charlie and Dan; the engine died from no fuel supply. The conference call between us becomes a round of conspiracy theories, sabotage possibilities, and a serious discussion about reporting the incident to the proper authorities.

 

But Mark points out the one thing we have not seen, namely the inside of the fuel tank. If we find debris, rags, hot dogs, or rocks in there, then we’d have an answer, whether it was an attractive answer or not. Being a crash site investigator, Mark has a borescope tool to probe the depths of the tank, and years of experience finding out if and why engines stopped running. He’ll meet me at the airplane at noon. High Noon, I think to myself. What will we find in that fuel tank…something that will lead the FBI and FAA to a secret terrorist cell, or something that would lead us all to a padded cell in the looney bin?

 

Alycia drops me off at the self-propelled magic hangar. High Noon comes, and Mark shows up with an ominous looking equipment case. By his admission, this is a unique trip for him. Usually nobody is happy when he shows up, and there’s nothing he can do to prevent a tragedy that’s already happened. But this time, he can use his skill to keep an airplane in the air, and he’s glad to put himself out of making an official visit later.

 

He peers into the fuel tank with a flashlight. Seconds turn into hours. He smiles, and is visibly glad to announce that there is nothing foreign in the fuel tank. Sabotage is out. No hot dog pieces, no angry ex-girlfriends, no kooks, no sinister plot. The tank and the filter screen at the tank outlet are clear. Within five minutes, the phone rings. It’s Charlie. What did you find? Mark, an old friend of Charlie’s from days of skydiving and catting around in the Mojave Desert, can’t resist. “Well Charlie, we’re trying to figure out how to remove this severed finger from plugging up the fuel tank…” I can’t resist either, and chime in over Mark’s shoulder, “We found a piece of cloth in the tank, and we’re trying to translate the Arabic writing…”

 

But Charlie isn’t in a fun mood. He has been quite correctly taking the situation very seriously, because two of the airplanes in his EAA chapter have possibly been tampered with. His leadership role demands that he would have to report any sabotage to the airport, the FAA, and perhaps the FBI. “Don’t &*%# with me, man, is there anything in there or not?” he insists. The moment of levity is over, and Mark gladly puts Charlie’s mind at ease. “The tank is spotless…I checked the screen, the seams, and the fuel inside the tank…there’s nothing accidental or intentional in there that would cause this problem.” Charlie is happily relieved, but I’m not. We still can’t say “there’s the cause of the engine failure”. It’s all pointing to the carburetor now, but we don’t have proof. What I do have is a known good carburetor, and I waste no time in putting it on the plane. A couple more hours are spent wrenching, safety-wiring, Cotter-keying, and hose-clamping the intake tubes. Mark Platt has bid me farewell, satisfied that the mystery was 99% solved. Now it was all up to me.

 

An hour was spent on the phone with Gary, talking to Dan about safety options leaving Van Nuys, checking the weather across town at Whiteman, and just thinking whether I forgot anything. Finally, the time had come to start the engine with the new carb. I asked Dan to let me tie the Taylorcraft to his cart so I could run it up to full power. We started the engine, and immediately it sounded better than it did before. I got in and let it warm up, then did a full power runup, then did two mag checks, then the carb heat check, then another full power run. Showtime. It was time for me to fly or get off the pot.

 

I hooked up the radio battery and put on the headset. It took a minute to find …the position… to hold the headset wire, but I found it. Ground Control cleared me to the long runway. Eight thousand feet of gorgeous runway was now, finally, a good thing. The tower cleared me to go, and I took a deep breath and rolled out onto runway one-six-right with almost no usable brakes.

 

Throttle forward. Steer with the rudder and push forward on the wheel for visibility and acceleration. Back on the wheel, wait until it feels light, then more back pressure to lift off. It’s still running and sounds strong. Climbing at best angle, roughly 50 miles an hour, we blast through a hundred feet, then five hundred, then a thousand. I climb right up to the approved altitude, “at or below 1800 feet”. I chose “at”.

 

The glider pilot comes out of my past and eases into the left seat of the Taylorcraft. Football field off to the left, no kids playing. We can get in there with some damage but it will be minor. Wal-Mart parking lot half a mile further. More serious damage, and property damage to people’s cars, but survivable. VA hospital off to the right, with its big green lawn five hundred feet long. No problem sliding in there, just a lot of paperwork…but they’d never let me fly it out, we’d be taking the wings off. Van Nuys tower says I can switch frequencies…they’re finally rid of me. Gotta be champagne corks popping in there right about now.

 

Big open field between the two freeways over there, halfway back to Whiteman. But that field has high tension power lines on all sides. I’d have to go under the wires and 20 feet above the cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour. They’d throw the book at me regardless, just for scaring the hell out of the people on the freeway. LAPD’s police car driver training center right there next to the reservoir. Good clean asphalt and no innocent motorists, but only a few hundred feet of it. I’ll have to groundloop before I run out of room, and I might bend the airplane. Still running strong, two thirds of the way back. Whiteman tower says enter on a right base, report over the 5 freeway. The 5 freeway’s not landable, but there’s a big grass public park a quarter mile closer. Nope, kids playing. Not gonna do that and have sport flying shut down forever… not on my watch. I’ll take the roof on top of that big industrial building if I have to, and hope for the best. Three quarters of the way home….where else can I stuff this thing and not break it… Hey, wait a minute… I’m a thousand feet above the ground, and coming up on base leg for home. My God, this airplane can glide to the runway from here.

 

“Taylorcraft 29544, cleared to land runway one-two, wind one three zero at five”, says Ed from inside the Whiteman airport control tower. From high above the clouds, C. G. Taylor smiles on me once again. Only a ten degree light crosswind means that I won’t need the brakes that I no longer have. Base to final at 800 feet, now I’m too high. That’s fine with me, the T-craft loves to fly sideways. I can feel my blood pressure coming back from the stratosphere, ironic at that moment with the plane plummeting toward the ground in an extreme forward sideslip. I’m covered with sweat after only a five minute flight, and I breathe calmly for the first time in half an hour. The main tires hit the numbers of my home runway, an unintentional show-off under these circumstances. We did it. The airplane never missed a beat with the new carburetor. Halfway between the runway and my hangar, the cel phone rings. It’s Alycia, asking whether I’m going to fly it back today. “I’m at Whiteman, we made it” I say, still taxiing.

 

Two hours later, Gary has the old carburetor apart. Within ten minutes, he identified a worn plastic float needle, a loose needle seat that rotates half a turn before tautening the safety wire, missing counterweights that needed to be on the float, a modified or excessively worn main float bowl, and a float that only moved a fraction of the normal travel. “I have no idea why this didn’t fail long before now, Bill. This carburetor is unsafe, it doesn’t have full function and there’s parts missing. This is an accident looking for a place to happen… here, take it… I don’t even want it in my hangar for parts”

 

My mind rockets me back to the day I flew the Taylorcraft along the rugged and unlandable Oregon coastline, the hundred foot tall pine forests, and over the north-east San Francisco bay. It was less than fifteen flight hours ago.

 

George Bailey’s guardian angel in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a fellow named Clarence.

 

My sincere thanks to C. G. … uhhh… Clarence Gilbert Taylor for designing the Taylorcraft. It’s a Wonderful Airplane.