Time Is Ticking on My Youth—and My Airplane’s Too

It’s become quite clear that my physical fitness is deteriorating at a much faster pace than that of my Beecraft Bonanza.

The ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ comparison doesn’t hold
water in regard to my body. But in some ways it does
hold true for my aircraft. [Courtesy: Ben Younger]

Woke up in pain this morning. I tore my shoulder in January while snowboarding in Utah. Knew it the second I hit the ground. It was day one of a five-day trip, so I gritted my teeth, threw a bunch of Advil at it, and enjoyed the rest of the vacation as best I could. Truth is, I often wake up in pain these days. I’m now seemingly able to injure myself in my sleep. New level achieved.

My airplane has similar issues. I shouldn’t be surprised. We were both made in the same year: 1972. She’s serial number 9046. I’m somewhere around 108 billion. The Bonanza has evolved a lot faster than humans have. My knees are still Gen 1, and my electrical system hasn’t been upgraded to 28 volts. Not holding my breath either. My autopilot works just fine, but that’s not considered a desirable attribute in a human.

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Last week I departed Los Angeles for New York. I flew straight back to Moriarty Municipal Airport (0E0) in New Mexico to clean up some additional squawks that surfaced post-annual. These aren’t things Fernie missed, rather just additional groans and signs of aging that my bird is exhibiting. Fernie cared for her immediately and got us going in just a day. By comparison, my doctor has a “first available” three months out, and my squawks are quite a bit more difficult to address and repair.

As a young man, I sustained plenty of injuries taking part in the many extreme sports I was drawn to. To alleviate the depression of being sidelined by an injury, I would tell myself that the treatment was going to make me stronger than I was before. I believed that my double meniscus surgery would make my knees like new again. It didn’t. You could make a case that the multiple fractures I’ve endured have possibly healed stronger than they were pre-break, but the calcified bump on my foot over the fifth metatarsal makes it impossible to wear ski boots now.

I have similar fantasies when parts are replaced on my airplane. Unlike my knees, this is less of a self-deception. When Joe and Brian from ACE Aircraft Cylinders & Engines overhaul my Continental 550, I am flying behind an engine better than the one it replaced. I breathe easier knowing that Kevin O’Halloran refurbished my landing gear motor. The list goes on. These craftsmen are the equivalent of doctors for our airplanes. They keep our machines healthy.

The squawks I returned to Moriarty with seem to dovetail with my own physical issues. Stay with me here:

• N1750W developed a small oil leak from a flex joint on the breather tube.

• I cough up phlegm most mornings apropos of nothing.

• My Bo’s vernatherm isn’t functioning properly as the oil never seems to get up above 150 degrees at cruise altitudes.

• I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the moment and couldn’t breathe on my run this morning here at 7K feet msl. I hid behind a bush to avoid the embarrassment of another jogger asking me if I needed help.

• The double-sided tape on my window scoop let go during taxi the other week, sucking the entire assembly out of the window and forcing me to shut down, exit the airplane, and run back to get it. No joggers witnessed this event.

• My knee let go on a tennis court in Griffith Park last month. I snapped it back into place, took an “L” on the match then went and got tacos.

• Lately, there is the faint smell of gas in the cabin.

• Lauren has been complaining about the not-so-faint smell of gas coming from my “cabin.” Neither issue has been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

I grew up in the 1980s with Steve Austin. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology…Better. Stronger. Faster.” Nope. At 50 it feels more like: Slower. Dumber. Crankier. You take things for granted when you’re young. Now, your health is first and foremost. I used to throw my body around. No stretching. No thoughtfulness. Treated myself like a workhorse: ridden hard and put away wet. I imagine buying a new airplane (something I’ve never done) must allow a similar lack of concern.

Many manufacturers cover basic maintenance for a time, and the warranties are substantial, covering most everything that could go wrong. So a pilot behind a new aircraft flies with mechanical abandon, knowing they likely aren’t going to have anything go wrong—notwithstanding their own deficiencies.

My overhauled engine in the Bonanza has 400 hours on it. I’m right in that sweet spot between the infant mortality stage and the still-distant 1,400-hour TBO. I am not worried about my engine. I can imagine flying past TBO—something I intend to do—but it won’t be the same. Crossing Lake Erie will feel differently with 1,800 hours on the Hobbs. At some point, something will fail. Just like my body. At a certain point, there is only decline. You can try and fight it, but you will one day lose. The best we can do is manage it. This isn’t meant to be morose. I believe the ephemeral quality of life is meant to have us appreciate our time here in a way we could not if we were granted immortality.

The Six Million Dollar Man comparison doesn’t hold water in regards to my body. But in some ways it does hold true for my aircraft. The Garmin suite of avionics I have in my airplane make it far more capable than it was when I first bought it with its steam gauges and a VOR receiver as its sole means of navigation. But there is a law of diminishing returns at play here. The airframe is aging. Metal fatigues. Magnesium pits. Floorboards rot. At some point, and it may not be for years, you’re putting lipstick on a pig.

This is where the comparison between myself and the airplane has its limits. I am deteriorating at a faster pace than my Bonanza. Sadly (or not), N1750W will outlive me. With proper care, she still has many years ahead of her. Me…I’m entering what is effectively the last third of my life. Don’t worry: I’m still sending it. I have no intention of slowing down. But I’m aware that time is ticking. In the meantime, I’m gonna keep applying that lipstick. Appearances must be kept.

This column first appeared in the August 2023/Issue 940 print edition of FLYING.

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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