Our Trip to Oshkosh

After 20 years in labor, Peter takes his second born to OSH.



There was a long list of things that needed to be done to Melmoth 2 before leaving for Oshkosh. One was to get a coat of paint onto the airplane. This I barely managed to accomplish in time, using roller, brush and a marine paint formulated for sailboats being finished, I suppose, at the ends of Alaskan docks, remote from air compressors. This type of paint flows out amazingly smooth, as though sprayed, if you apply it just right. I managed to do so in some places and not in others, but the result didn't look too bad, on the whole, if you stood far enough away.

I luckily found, as the day of departure approached, that I could delete things from the to-do list without actually doing them. This discovery sped my progress considerably.

I didn't get under way until Wednesday afternoon, July 30th, and had to telescope the acceptance test-the airplane had not been in the air for 10 weeks-and the departure for Oshkosh into a single flight. Nothing untoward happened, however, until I encountered a squall line east of Flagstaff and landed at Winslow a few minutes ahead of a black wall of monsoon wind and rain.

Unfortunately, I had no tiedowns. There are threaded sockets in the wings and tail, and I had bolts to screw into them, but I had never drilled the holes or added the loops of cable that were intended to make the bolts into removable tiedown rings and jack points. As the storm approached, however, I found myself quaffing the milk of human kindness in a way that was to happen several times during this trip. The lineman drilled holes through two of the bolts for me, and we sat under the wings as the wind began to whip up and the rain to slice down, threading loop after loop of safety wire through them until we judged the resulting rings to be sufficiently strong. When we returned, rain-soaked, to the office and I tried to pay him for his work, he declined, and instead gave me and the occupants of another stymied Oshkosh-bound homebuilt a car in which to drive to a motel.

The next day, the next difficulty. Having launched just before sunrise, I was enjoying the sight of blurry streams of heated air emerging from the cooling air outlets on the top of the cowling, and made visible by a sliver of rising sun when the engine gave a slight shudder. I switched first to one mag, then to the other. The engine ran smoothly on the left, but shook and backfired on the right.

I was just coming up on Gallup, New Mexico, but a friend was supposed to meet me in Santa Fe, 45 minutes ahead. Reviewing in my mind the countless Aftermath columns I have written about pilots who made bad inflight decisions, and weighing convenience against the odds-rather hard to measure, but in any case slight-of the second mag giving up within the next hour, I decided to continue. Indeed, I reached Santa Fe without further trouble.

Jet Center mechanics found no visible problem with the mag; it was old, however, and had flown many hours, and so the assumption was that the coil had failed. Now another unexpected dose of kindness came my way; a local pilot lent me mags and an ignition harness to use for the rest of the trip; I would ship them back to him when I returned to Los Angeles. We installed them and took off eastward at five in the afternoon, reaching Salina, Kansas, by nightfall-the end of the flying day for the lightless airplane.

We were off again at dawn, cruising at 11,500 feet in clear, cool, motionless morning air. A few convective buildups lifted themselves before us like awakening sentinels as we reached Wisconsin; we slipped unseen between their sunlit towers. As we loafed the last 30 miles along the railroad track from Ripon at 90 knots under a low overcast, unseen controllers below issued a steady patter of instructions-White low-wing, waggle your wings! Green biplane, switch to tower frequency now!-while occasional airplanes materialized suddenly from the fog and flitted past in the opposite direction. The traffic at Oshkosh, with innumerable airplanes simultaneously landing and taking off at intervals of a few seconds, reminded me of the digitally enhanced swarms of Japanese attackers in Pearl Harbor. The tower controller remained jovial and polite, however, congratulating each pilot on a tight turn to final and wishing all a happy show.

After we got the airplane pushed into its display spot beside Flying's tent, I gave it the once-over. I was surprised to discover that a stainless-steel heat shield on the underside of the cowling behind the exhaust pipe had been bent downward by the airstream, perhaps during our 175 kias descent toward Ripon, and had been rubbing against the exhaust. Opening up the cowling, I found that the end fitting on a brace that restrains the turbocharger against fore-and-aft vibration had cracked through a bolt hole. I saw immediately that this failure was due not to fatigue or overstress but to my own carelessness in installing the part. In my haste before leaving, I had failed to trim some excess material from the end of the aluminum fitting. That excess length had been resting on a slightly raised portion of the assembly, and created a severe bending stress when I cinched down the attaching bolt.

On Sunday we went to the Kermit Weeks Flight Research Center-the facility that maintains the EAA's fleet of flying historic aircraft-to ask for help, and we got it. With an endearing confidence that I would not cut my hand off, mechanic Gerard Putzer pointed me to some stainless steel sheet and a shear and brake with which to make a new heat shield, while he spliced a new steel end fitting onto the broken turbo brace. I felt a flush of nostalgic recollection as I sheared the steel sheet: the machines were of exactly the same type as the ones I used 30 years ago in the late John Thorp's shop in Sun Valley, California, to make parts for the original Melmoth.

Monday dawned with a persistent overcast. Melmoth's artificial horizon was broken but the whole airplane, which had now flown only 50 hours, was still too experimental for IMC flying anyway. We positioned it on the grass beside the taxiway to be ready to go; and then waited, and waited, and waited. The airport finally went VFR at around one. After most of the long slow queue for Runway 36 had passed, we joined it. The Hughes Racer replica, for me the most arresting airplane at the show, fell into line behind us. Standing on a small platform at the departure end was the controller, reading the N-numbers of the airplanes as they taxied past and directing them to move into position and hold on the left or right side of the runway. Cream-colored T-tail, position and hold on the right! I much appreciated that "cream," having been at pains to find the proper shade of off-white.

As we climbed away I heard them release the Hughes; an anonymous voice on the frequency said, "Thanks for coming, you made my show."

We stayed below the clouds for 20 or 30 miles, until the rifts got big enough to climb through, and then went up to 10,500. The wind was out of the north, so we made good speed. In three hours we stopped again at Salina, refueled and relaunched, this time with my friend flying. The last hour was rough, with late-afternoon desert chop pounding us all the way from Dalhart to the Sandia Mountains. He disembarked at Albuquerque to catch the last flight home, and I went back up to Santa Fe as the sun set. Airborne at dawn on Wednesday to beat the desert turbulence, I had a smooth four-hour flight back to Los Angeles.

The numbers for the 3,200 nm trip were about what I expected: 21.3 hours, with a total fuel burn of almost exactly 10 gallons per hour. The airplane used, or lost, two quarts of oil, some of which, weeping past ancient seals in the long-stored engine, sketched fine black streamlines along the cowling. Cruise at 70 percent of power at 10,500 feet was 179 knots. This corresponds to an equivalent flat plate area-a convenient measure of drag-of 2.6 square feet. The design target was 2.5; it will be interesting to see whether nosewheel doors, flap track fairings and canopy seals can shave off the last tenth of a square foot.

Not having picked up a newspaper or browsed the internet, I didn't learn until I was back home that the Oregon-bound Hughes Racer replica had crashed in Wyoming, killing the pilot, at about the time we were approaching Albuquerque. Any airplane accident is sad, but this one was doubly so because of the beauty of the airplane, both in form and in workmanship, and the boundless devotion to it of its pilot, Jim Wright. We won't soon see their like again.