|Bellancas from Santa Paula|
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This story comes from Jonathan Baron, who fell in love with a Bellanca 14-19 Cruisemaster and bought it in early 2001. After an extended annual inspection, we finally retrieved it from Santa Paula, CA in August.
Okay, this is what it came down to: Bellanca guru can't seem to finish up my aircraft's annual because....well...he's the west coast's Bellanca guru. So, it was time for a reasonable sounding deadline which he accepted. Thursday night, and buddy (with Cruisemaster time) and I take the flying tube to Burbank, rent a car, and establish our watch at Santa Paula. All day Friday...all day Saturday, Dan Torrey (the aforementioned Bellanca go-to guy) works on nothing but my Bellanca.
Complicating matters was the former owner, Chuck Davis. Actually, the word "complicate" is terribly inappropriate here, for it implies that the ineluctable forces of time, and their power to flush staggering emotions from even the most stoic among us are wrong. Far more than an aircraft was preparing to depart Santa Paula. Thirty years of a man's adventures with his wife were contained within that Bellanca. Every old airplane that has been loved bears this weightless spiritual cargo, for although an aircraft can be restored to its condition at birth, our lives run a separate cycle of inevitable change with but one conclusion.
Six One November was the finest thing Chuck ever owned. Working any job he could get from the age of 16, never finishing High School, he made his way on drive, common sense, and the ability to barter his skills in exchange for the skills of others. His first airplane was a Citabria he built from a total wreck. He and his wife, Happy, flew to Alaska in that airplane. When he needed a new paint job for his Cruisemaster, he went to a veritable artist in that trade. Chuck's 'Master got a magnificent coat of paint; the painter got a new deck for his house.
"I fixed up a [Porsche] 912," he told me, "...and when Happy and I drove around in it, folks talked to us like we were people. Wherever we went in the Bellanca, folks treated us nice. They always gave us parking in the shade or in a hangar. When Happy could no longer get in and out of the Bellanca, there wasn't any point. Yeah, I held onto it for a few years, but I knew it was wrong."
Saturday afternoon, Dan and Russell taxied the Bellanca to the fuel pit. "Damn it," Chuck said, "That's the first time I've seen that plane move without my being in it. I don't think I could stand sitting in the right seat either. I'm heading home. I just hope I don't have to see it fly over my house," And with that he left.
In the early evening Bellanca 6561N finally flew for the first time in several years. A tad left wing heavy, Dan very slightly shimmed the proper flap (he prides himself on never having to employ something so aerodynamically ham handed as a trim tab on a Bellanca) and the aircraft flew beautifully.
Sunday my buddy Russell and I departed. Well.....I drove to Oxnard to drop off the rental car and Russell flew there to pick me up. He tried to start it after I'd boarded and the battery died. I later ask Dan if he ran a specific gravity test on the battery - oops, nope. Thus began the pattern of adding "get a member of the line crew to give us a jump," to our engine start checklist. The first time took hours. No mechanics on duty on Sunday. No tools. We grabbed a courtesy car and headed for the nearest K-Mart to get a cheap socket set.
The battery is not in the usual place for this airplane. Like it or not, I had to call Chuck to find out where it was. He told me and then burst into tears. "You'll see it again, Chuck," I said. "Really?" Chuck asked, like a little boy clutching at reassurance he longed for but could not quite believe.
Procedure: Remove the rug covering the baggage compartment floor. Lift out a panel, thus exposing the battery box. I undo the two nuts holding the top of the battery box in place, remove battery box lid (fortunately the rear seat is empty and our stuff could go there). Take jumper cables and attach to terminals. Russell starts engine. Amidst this gale created by the Lycoming 0435, I secure the box lid, replace the panel in the baggage compartment floor, replace the rug, lock the baggage door, make my way up the wing against the wind, open the door with difficulty (even at idle this prop moves a lot of air) and fight my way inside.
This aircraft has a controllable pitch prop, meaning that you have to fiddle with it during the various phases of flight. The 'Master gets off in short order, max power for one minute, then climb out at 600-700 fpm at 25 square (not bad considering how F#*KING HOT the air was) and handles the heat well just so long as you keep the cowl flap wide open. At 75% (roughly 24 square) and the cowl flap closed, she cruises at 155-160, though we were seeing between 170 and 180 due to a welcome tailwind. This over-built pre-war military engine (originally rated for 190hp on 435 cubic inches of displacement and six cylinders, compared to 200 hp on a four cylinder Lycoming IO360 today) will suck down 12 gallons an hour to accomplish this (13 if the air is terribly hot and you cannot lean it). Russell was running at high power settings in order to reseat the rings after its long period of dormancy. I'd had the cylinders bore-scoped and they were clean. The engine had 285 SMOH by a well known and respected shop (the one time Chuck forsook a barter or homemade solution). In essence we were doing an engine break in.
It may be over-built (the case and crank on this engine are HUGE), and heavy, but this is a very smooth engine. So long as you're not an idiot and fill it to the full mark on the dipstick (12 quarts), she'll sit at 10 quarts for a long time before you need to add oil.
Then came the unnerving stuff. After landing and during taxi, the left gear alarm would go on. A quick shove of the gear handle would boost the hydraulic pressure enough to shut off the alarm (or application of the hand pump if you felt like physical exertion in 95+ degree heat). This was a bit strange, as there were no external leaks in the system (at 1000lbs max pressure during retraction or extension of the gear, you WOULD notice a leak), it was producing rated pressure, and the gear stayed up just fine in-flight. Dan would later curse himself for not replacing the O rings in the gear cylinders - a common thing to do if the aircraft has sat awhile. And, yes, it eventually showed up on the right side too. Apart from startling us each time it happened, the gear never gave any hint of folding and a short burst of pressure would correct the problem.
On Monday morning we arrived in Arlington, Washington. Today, Dan dispatched some O rings (they're an odd size), and my mechanic here can probably fix the problem in a couple of hours. Next week I begin intensive training (taking the week off) to learn to fly this aircraft and get ready for the Feds yet again. This particular 0435A has been converted to an A2 meaning that it's rated for 225hp (you'd never see it, because it comes at an absurdly high RPM). Thus is will amount to my complex, high performance endorsement, as well as yet another checkride.
Last night I phoned Chuck. We went back and forth on how I'd handled the situation: leaving it up to him to decide whether he wanted to come back to the airport to watch her fly, or ask for a right seat ride. He said he wanted to see her go. He said he wanted a final ride. But I told him what he'd said at the time. "You're right, and I'm right," he concluded. "It's about the inevitable, and now I know why all these famous old guys are having kids. It's easy to want to fight nature. But you can't." Early this next summer, Russell will be bringing his 'Master to Dan for a thorough looking over. I'll fly wing in mine to bring Russell home. I figure that this will also be the perfect time to bring another fellow home for a visit, as I take Chuck up for a ride as well.