Unusual Attitudes: Cubs, Beer Cans and Nav Lights

Unapproved aircraft hardware takes on "risk management."

Unusual Attitudes Flasher Units

Unusual Attitudes Flasher Units

It was nearly May before spring arrived this year in the Ohio Valley, and then it seemed like forever until the grass strips dried out from weeks of rain and I declared victory in a fierce battle with some miserable bug. But eventually all the stars aligned — the weather, the runways and my snotty nose — and I dragged N3513N, my Cub, out of its "new" T-hangar to go flying. It had been living in one of three large hangars built at Lunken Airport in 1927 for the new Embry-Riddle Co. While I was glad it was under roof, a Cub in a common hangar with people pushing it around is a recipe for disaster; so it was good news when a T-hangar became available on the south line. The bad news was that the "sliding" doors in this row of hangars, built in the 1940s or '50s, were even more cantankerous than they were when I learned to fly there in 1962.

In the '70s my Pietenpol Air Camper was in this very same hangar and I don't remember the doors being an issue, but then there's 50 years' worth of wear on both the doors and me! We cleaned the tracks and smeared serious grease to free them up, but they're worn and warped and literally a pain in the back. I've always thought that every airport needs an elephant. Think about having one of these gentle giants to shove hangar doors, push flying machines around, lift disabled airplanes, snuffle up foreign object debris (FOD) from the runways and jack up an airplane to change a wheel or a tire.

Meanwhile, until the airport elephant arrives, I have a standing appointment with a masseuse who works the kinks out of my back!

I don't know about your airport but the newer T-hangars at Lunken with electric doors, like the one that's home to my Cessna 180, are full and rarely if ever become available. The airport office has this really, really long waiting list, but common knowledge is that half the people on it no longer own airplanes and others have gone to their reward. These hangars are just sort of handed down or sub(-sub-sub-sub)­leased. It's all very mysterious and secretive. The city says it can't build more hangars because "Sunken Lunken" sits on the banks of the Ohio River at the confluence of the Little Miami, and the dikes and levees aren't high enough to meet FAA standards for airports in flood plains — or something.

Anyway, after wrestling the doors open and pulling the Cub out, it turned into a bluebird day; I was finally "back home" — pulling my Cub out of my hangar, propping it and heading out on a summer afternoon with the door and window open. It was a glorious flight, but my toilet paper routine needs work: Three jumbo rolls of Scott's finest and my best run yielded a measly five cuts. But there's a long, long summer ahead.

Then, last evening, after spending a gruesome afternoon with the FAA's Risk Management Handbook, I dragged 13N out for some touch-and-goes and to hone my spot landing skills, which also need work. What a refreshing return to reality that was after struggling with aeronautical decision making, attitude management, stress management, hazardous attitudes, human factors, risk assessment and situational awareness. In preparation for an FAA pilot examiner recurrent course next week, I also dipped into the new Airman Certification Standards (ACS), which will be a major topic. You probably know that the ACS will soon replace the Practical Test Standards, which, if you've been around long enough to remember, replaced Flight Test Guides. While they all cover pretty much the same territory, in this newest approach practical tests integrate the usual required tasks with associated knowledge questions — especially those the applicant missed on the written — and emphasize "risk management" awareness and skills.

A product of the FAA, industry leaders and "eminent" (probably nonpilot) educational psychologists from prestigious aeronautical universities, the Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2) sounded like something I'd need to get semifamiliar with or at least know the jargon. If you haven't guessed, I'm rather skeptical about whether risk management (good judgment) is something that can be taught and tested, but what I think doesn't matter; ignoring it definitely puts any pilot at "risk" for failure on written and practical tests.

On Page 2 of Chapter 1, I read about the official definition of a hazard and four common examples — one of which was "use of unapproved hardware on aircraft." Then, turning the page, I learned that risk is defined as the impact of hazards that are not controlled or eliminated — a future uncertainty created by a hazard. So, by plugging in "use of improper hardware on an airplane" to a table that measures "likelihood" and "severity," you'll discover (as if you didn't know) if the risk is high, serious, medium or low. There's even a nifty color-coded matrix with green, yellow and red boxes for those of us who are visual learners. Yes, red is high risk, and yes, I'm biting my tongue to keep from saying nasty things about good judgment and common sense and psychologists who don't fly airplanes.

With considerable difficulty and a stream of "blue" language, I finally got the wires and jacks from the radio, the antenna, the intercom and the headset connected (if I ever get killed in the Cub it will be from being strangled on wires) and went flying. It was getting close to sunset and I was thinking about a long-ago airport manager who got on Lunken tower frequency one evening and announced that, "because of the cloud cover, sunset will be a half-hour earlier tonight." Then, with "risk management" and "unapproved hardware" and impending sunset in mind, I remembered a nav light installation on Cub 40M that I owned with Mike Devanney.

We had a couple of doctor pals, Dan Kindel and Bill Terrell, who were both avid flyers. Both of them had owned Cessna 195s since they were in med school together at Ohio State, and both were serious tinkerers. They were heavily into electronics and ­gadgetry and had workshops that looked like something from a '50s sci-fi thriller like The Brain That Wouldn't Die or Radar Men from the Moon.

Mike decided we needed navigation lights on the Cub as well as something to power the "portable" Bayside transceiver, which was the size and weight of a microwave oven and sat on the back shelf. Now, you may remember that, until the 1980s, Colorado-­brewed Coors Beer wasn't available east of the Mississippi, which, of course, only added to the mystique and determination of "Eastern" beer drinkers to get their hands on the stuff. Well, in addition to standard size cans, Coors came in miniatures, which Dan and Bill determined were the ideal size and shape for repurposing as navigation lights on the Cub.

They threaded wires out through the wings and hooked them up to the small beer cans fitted with red and green lights and now ­implanted in the wingtips. These mad ­doctors/scientists had somehow and somewhere acquired really strange-looking power supplies — batteries that came out of very early computers. "An incredible find," Bill said, "because they provide a steady and accurate 13.5 volts for our electronicing and avionicing." Well, yeah, the power was steady and accurate, but this thing weighed about 25 pounds and had to be carefully positioned upright and secured on the floor of the Cub because the clear tubes were filled with liquid potassium hydroxide. This, I learned, was rather nasty stuff — a strong caustic solution closely related to sodium hydroxide (household lye) that would corrode aluminum in a heartbeat. Knowing nothing about electronics or chemistry, I could never remember if they said this contraption was called a "NiCad" or came out of a "Nike" missile.

Dan also decided we needed a flasher unit, which would save battery life since the lights would be on only half the time. He built several, one for the Cub and the others for two large, high-wing, tailwheel Cessnas.

Sadly, Dan's gone now, but I can still see him proudly displaying his most coveted possession — more precious, I think, than his medical degree. It was a letter from Bendix Corp. thanking him for his ideas and drawings for improvements to one of their aviation transceivers — and offering him a job.

Bill still consults as an aviation medical examiner, still owns the 195 and is ever the mad scientist. He came up with the photograph of flasher units but claims he remembers nothing about aviation applications for potassium hydroxide batteries and "unauthorized hardware" in Cubs and Cessna 195s.

It was long ago, so maybe I just dreamed it.