FINALLY – the complete, total “rest of the story!” When I last blogged, in April, I wrote how I had an engine failure and landed in a wheat field outside of Custer, MT – upside down. Amazingly, I wasn’t hurt at all – not a single scratch or bruise. And the Talon had minimal damage, but enough to prevent me from flying home. So with the help of my two flying partners, Wayne in a Rans S-14 and Bob in a Titan Tornado, I rented a truck, took the Talon apart and loaded it up, and drove home. Bob and Wayne continued their flight back to Oregon, taking almost as long as I did because of weather.
I found driving I-90 an astonishing experience. I had a strong, almost physical sense of what it would be like to be flying the route. I-90 goes through wide valleys between numerous mountain ranges: the Sapphire Mountains southeast of Missoula as well as the Bitterroot Range, which is composed of several different mountains.
As I drove I was watching the sky as well as the road. I drove through clouds and light rain into Butte, noting that the amount of rain probably wouldn't have grounded us. It would have been uncomfortable for me - I've often said that in an open cockpit, flying through rain is like getting facial acupuncture. As I drove over the Clark Fork River (one of the many times the river intersects with I-90) the clouds started to build again.
I was happily imagining coming back to fly this gorgeous area...until I was about 30 miles east of the Idaho border. Here the Bitterroot Mountains became high, steep, heavily forested - with apparently no place to land but the freeway. Of course, from the air you can see much more and there might have been landing spots which were obscured by the evergreens I was driving through. I hope so. There was about 50 miles of really ugly country (I'm talking from a flying perspective - from a driving perspective it was absolutely gorgeous.)
I'm not sure I want to try flying it. I even found myself thinking "I'm glad I'm driving this, not flying it." Immediately I wondered "What WOULD I have done if I'd been in the air? Would I have wimped out, wanted to land and find another route? Is there another route that doesn't involve going through these mountains? Looking at the map, I don't think so.
That got me thinking about the pressure I put on myself not to be the wuss, the wimp, the weak sister. I never hear the guys talking about being afraid - perhaps they are, but they don't mention it. (I'm talking about all the male pilots I fly with - not just about Bob and Wayne.) They talk blithely about landing on the highway if there's absolutely nowhere else to land. Yet this is summer and I-90 is well traveled. I probably would have just soldiered on, and kept my fears to myself. We had looked at the route before we chose it, and I've driven it before, so I DID know what we were heading for. And, assuming that I could land with the flow of west-bound traffic, I'd probably have made a better landing than I did in that wheat field!
The closer I got to home, the sadder I got. I shouldn't be bringing the Talon home in a truck - I should be flying this route, reveling in the beauty from above, not below. As I got off the freeway, only 30 minutes from home, I called Sandy River Airport. My spirits were immeasurably lifted - a whole gaggle of pilot friends were waiting to greet me and help me get the Talon out of the truck.
I pulled into Sandy River and everyone was there to lend a hand. When we took the Talon out of Humongous Harry (as I called the truck) everyone wanted to know "What happened?!?!?" The guys swarmed around it, looking for reasons why the engine might have quit. Nothing was immediately apparent.
We were all perplexed, since I had filled up with gas at Miles City, MT and had flown only an hour when the engine died. The next morning, when Bob, Wayne and I went to get the plane, the gas tank was completely empty although there was still gas in the carb bowls. Yes, the plane was upside down overnight, but if the gas had leaked out of the overflow line during that time, I'd expect that the wipe cloths, sleeping bag, and other fabric which I'd packed next to the gas tank would be saturated - or at least smelling strongly of residual gas. But they were completely dry and odor free. So now the "figuring it out" began.
We didn’t find an answer until we took apart the engine. An oil seal had failed and as a result, oil wasn’t being pumped through the pistons, instead it was pooling in the bottom. As a result – a massive seizure. The master mechanic who took it apart told me that it was such an old engine, with so many hours, that even though I’d kept it rigorously maintained it wasn’t worth another rebuild. “”Bite the bullet and buy yourself a new engine, Arty,” he said. And so with a gulp, I did.
What did I learn/remember from those three weeks?
1. I'm not up there alone.
Even though I fly a single seat aircraft, I'm never really alone. The web of relationships I've created surrounds and supports me. Complete strangers reach out and offer help. The power of these relationships is as important as the joy of flying.
2. I'm responsible for my choices.
I make numerous decisions that affect my flying...who I fly with, the equipment I use, the degree to which I maintain or neglect the Talon, the attention I pay to my pre-flight inspections, the route I choose to fly. When things go wrong, I have to take responsibility rather than blaming the weather or the plane or someone else.
3. I have to force myself into my courage zone, or I'll stay in my comfort zone.
I wasn't sure I really wanted to make this flight: I'd heard too much about the awful winds in Wyoming - and had experienced them when I worked there years ago. But I've learned that for me, my comfort zone gets boring. Flying is never boring, but it is safely stretching myself that is challenging. That applies to many parts of my life, not just flying.
4. If I can't fly as far as I want, then I fly as far as I can.
I've learned that I can be incredibly patient, waiting for the right weather conditions. I'm not a patient person, but I've become comfortable with waiting until it's safe to fly. And if I only cover 200 miles instead of 400 in a day, I'm content because I've still made progress. Once you learn the skills to fly, you can fly anywhere. In an ultralight-type aircraft, it just takes longer.
There's lots more I've learned - but that's enough for now!