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Driving Miss Bessy - Part II of the Trilogy

By N. Kent Beckham 

In Part 1, Tony Swain described Greg Burnard and me, both representing the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association (CHAA), coming to take his and wife Mary’s beloved ex-RCAF Harvard 4 “Bessy” away. It was an emotional farewell as they had been doting on their only baby for 35 years.

The time had come for her to fly east again to Tillsonburg, Ont., (CHAA’s home) and settle with friends she had flown with before in the 1950s. Although the late November left coast weather was awful, Greg and I knew we had to get out of Dodge or succumb to the effects of Mary’s home cooking and buy new belts and jeans. If you ever do brunch with the Swains – a word of warning: Tony doesn’t sleep at nights; he hibernates. Some people need their morning coffee, Tony needs his marmalade. Never, under any circumstances, beat this bear to his marmalade.

When the rain paused, Tony pulled her out of the hangar with his Corvair tug spinning in the muck trying to accelerate while shoehorning between the T hangars. He had to keep up the momentum, but if any door opened on the hangar we would have torn it off.

After seeing this man drive I would love to fly aerobatics with him – he’s able to bend the envelope but not break it. I hope he takes us up on our offer to fly Bessy again in formation at Tilly.

Tony and Mary stood crying and waving and crying some more as we asked Bessy (loaded to the gills with long range fuel, winter survival gear, and us two stick pushers) to haul all three tons of herself out of the Delta mud and clear the barns and trees. This was an engine past its TBO and hadn’t been majored in over 40 years.

I dropped 15 degrees on the three flaps and eased the supercharger up to maximum rated power. The 9 foot one inch diameter Hamilton Standard constant speed prop had tip speeds that were supersonic. Somewhere further in from the tip was a transonic area followed by a subsonic one all on each blade.

This is the roar of the Harvard. You not only heard it - you felt it! Pratt & Whitney build things of beauty. They watched us shrink to a dot, then, from their perspective we were gone. Even the radial engine noise had dissipated.

Several miles behind us, only thousands more to go. We didn’t make it. A canyon U-turn with flaps at Hope Slide put back at the last paved strip we had over-flown – Chilliwack. The Internet claims that three fatal plane crashes occur in this valley every year. The recommended minimum altitude for turning around 5,500 feet is posted on the sectional chart.

Being transplanted, jet lagged easterners, it was easy for us to get up three hours before the dawn of the next day and be ready to leap into the air at legal daylight. As we hiked to the airport lugging our bags from the cheap hotel at O’dark 30 in the frosty morning, we could see the moon and stars silhouetting the mountain peaks. We were so enthused we didn’t need an aircraft to fly.

The journey of a lifetime was about to commence. Once airborne we could see wisps of cloud starting to form near the wind swept peaks. This told me that the clear air was saturated with moisture.

We made it past Hope, through Manning Pass and almost to Princeton before the valleys plugged up with undercast ahead. We were hooped again! Back to Chilliwack for brunch pie.

It just wouldn’t improve as we spent the day at the airport. Tomorrow’s forecast was to be better, and that’s exactly what it was – a forecast! It was half a mile in snow and deteriorating as we hung around the pie shop like a bad smell. Charlie, a local, took us into town for dinner.

The mountains lurked behind the obscuring weather giving the impression that the Fraser Valley was somehow located in the Prairies. The next day was still crap so we pulled the plug and spent the entire day going home by airlines arriving around midnight. We were exhausted and hadn’t even touched a flight control that day.

November came to pass and we patiently waited for a weather window of opportunity to appear. It rained. It rained again.

FEBRUARY 7

I was at an air show business dinner meeting in the Niagara area with my teammates of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team. We are qualified and experienced at formation aerobatics in Harvards to the surface throughout Canada and the U.S. Not only had the negotiations stopped proceeding, but, my right shoulder was killing me from a cortisone injection, earlier that day, which was to fix a rotator cuff calcification problem.

During the car pool home I figured that I could acquire three hours sleep after packing if I wanted to jump a flight out of Toronto connecting through Calgary to Abbotsford. I was feeling so bad that I couldn’t imagine getting any worse. Mother Nature was offering an opportunity out west and I was hearing her five by five.

Dozing in cattle class onboard a plastic airliner with the nose wheel on the wrong end, I was awakened by the window seat guy who needed to use the lav. Upon his return he was talkative. I just wanted to sleep. Like me, he too was a pilot employee, but he wasn’t on days off. He was still dressed in uniform - he had been “flight released.”

These were mighty big words in the profession. Had he been in some sort of accident/incident? He didn’t look right. He had that 20-yard stare in a 10-foot room and he needed someone that would listen. Apparently his wife had been diagnosed with cancer quite a while back, and he had received the call while abroad at work that it was time to be at home. Our profession is extremely hard on the home life. I truly wish you and yours all the best Rick.

Some elderly lady spilled a drink on me while I was sleeping on the next flight. I found it amusing. My problems were peanuts in comparison. She politely apologized as I resumed sleeping.

An old friend, Kevin Olson, that I used to work with (I remember climbing out of Fort McMurray in the dark cockpit listening to Edmonton Centre telling us that that the first space shuttle, Challenger, was no longer with us) met me in Abbotsford. Together along with his grown son Shawn, we spent the afternoon prepping Bessy, still at Chilliwack.

We loaded even more survival gear as it was now February. Her main landing gear oleos were way over-inflated as if someone had over serviced them. After a moments thought, I kicked a 27-inch tire dropping a wing and oleo back to normal.

The windstorm that recently passed through had rocked her so hard that the oleos had stuck up due to her attitude on the ground as a taildragger. If the tail had been raised to level, the improved geometry would have allowed settling.

Turning the prop through many rotations cleared the accumulated oil that inevitably seeps past piston rings in the inverted cylinders at the bottom of a radial engine. The battery was dead. Who ever put an electric clock into an airplane should be shot. Alternating turns on the hand crank resulted in Bessy slowly coming back to life belching light blue smoke as the oil was burned off out of the exhaust collector ring.

This hand cranking is easily heart attack work for middle aged men. Bessy had spent the past 35 years as a bay babe. Tony had to maintain her plugs, wires, mags and induction vibrator in excellent condition, in order to start in Vancouver fall and winters.

Water poured out of the cowlings, fuselage drain holes, and places that you’d wonder how it ever got in. Bessy dried out and the generator slowly charged the battery. Tomorrow would be the day.

Kevin had me in the air to see the sun rise over the rocks. CAVU with a tailwind. What scenery. I promised my youngest son back home that I would follow Highway 3 through the mountains. If I couldn’t land on it - at least the rescue and salvage operation could be performed with close proximity to a road.

I was flying a day, VFR only, relic in February. Flying in the winter and into sun would greatly shorten the amount of available daylight so I opened the tap to one inch less than maximum allowed for lean cruise operation. Bessy was at 9,500 feet with the 10:1 blower causing her to hump along.

I gain about three knots/thousand feet in true airspeed, as well as increased tailwinds, decreased fuel flow in the oxygen reduced altitude. Unlike a turbocharger that creates an exhaust backpressure which increases the temperature of your engine, gear driven superchargers allow unimpeded exit of the burnt gases. They were perfectly named.

 I have flown numerous Harvards over the past 28 years, but this one was the fastest. It has a more nose down attitude and requires left rudder trim in cruise.

I never got to try the long range fuel. Weather would cause me to cautiously land short and fill before proceeding further. Poor wx, winter, little daylight, unfamiliar airplane, and low fuel are not great combinations. Call me yellow, but I’m still here after close to 20,000 hours of short haul stuff. I’ll argue with you in my rocker some day if you’re still around.

The Cranbrook fueler had to work the sked flight before he could bill me. Having been in the industry I understood. Funny thing – I watched him working on the newly painted Kool-Aid coloured Dash 8 and caught the letters “TA” in the registration. She used to be a Time Air machine that I had flown thousands of hours after the grounding of the Canadian Partner ATR-42s due to an icing fiasco. (Another story)

Back in cruise, Bessy was humpin’ along never missing a beat. Each magneto delivering 8,100 high voltage zaps to the plugs per minute. I had to keep my microphone away from my breath or it would ice over.

I wasn’t scared of an old, time proven engine which was in excellent shape. I am fearful of new and freshly overhauled engines for the first 200 hours. By then, most of the parts have finished discussing whether they are going to get along.

At Swift Current the wind was 25 gust 35 knots. It was not a place for the inexperienced. I can only imagine what they thought as a faded lemon yellow Harvard (with a fish with lipstick on the big engine cowling – Tony was probably sponsored by his wife’s business Royal Seafoods) dropped out of the sky and slid on to the plowed runway using next to no runway length.

A quick turn was accomplished. I rumbled on to Regina in snow following the Trans-Canada. It used to be bad news to see headlights in the daytime coming the other way. Suddenly there was no traffic coming towards me at all. An accident up ahead? I found out later that night that Highway 1 was closed on the other side of Regina to Virden because of the weather.

The wind was still blowing at Regina, which from experience meant I would have extremely poor visibility in snow, blowing snow and drifting snow during round-out. Although it was still legal VFR, I was sure glad the runway lights were on upon touchdown. You can’t see over that nose when the tail wheel comes down.

I had flown into my second time zone for the day and wasn’t the least bit fatigued. Noise canceling headsets are the answer. What was the question?

A Jetstream 31 parked beside me. Another registration that I used to fly with different paint. I still recalled that the Garrett TPE 331-10 UGR turned 41,730 RPM at take off turning Dowty Rotols at 1,591 RPM. Why does something like that stick in your brain decades later, but I can’t remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Garretts had a centrifugal compressor. Turn a Hoover upright vacuum over and you’ll see the same thing. Extremely noisy things.

I had caught up to the backside of a low pressure system. The following day saw me diverting to Yorkton and getting special VFR clearance to land as the weather improved. I struck out again. This time moderate mixed ice was forming on the windscreen.

I confirmed the pitot heater was still drawing 10 amps. The probe was clear of ice. What’s this? The wing leading edge was clean as well. Somewhere south of Lake Manitoba/northwest of Portage La Prairie, the visibility in snow was so bad that it was coming through my heater as moist air, causing slush to form on my defrosted, tiny glass front windshield. Turning the heater off has little effect on the defroster.

This truly sucked. I slowed, allowing the aircraft to crab further to the left into the northern gale. My resultant flight path now was directly out the right triangular plate glass corner window. Ahead to the right were classic whiteout conditions over a vast expanse of snow covered featureless Prairie field. I turned directly for it.

I did not have misplaced confidence in my abilities as I have more time on the gauges than most pilots’ total time. It would be a piece of snap to proceed this way with instrument backup for a short period of time allowing a left turn into much better visual conditions.

Establishing a turn is far easier than maintaining one. I’ve used this technique over many lakes, turning towards the shore while accomplishing a 180-degree. Surprisingly, when taught to fly, pilots are never shown the face of poor weather and allowed to make the decision to turn back. They have to accomplish this for the first time without the benefit of an instructor beside them.

I diverted to Brandon which was in the clear. Portage La Prairie failed to go VFR as forecast so I called it a day. Many thanks to the staff at the Brandon Flying Club, who lent me a courtesy car, plug in for the night and Herman Nelson pre-heat out of pity the following morning when I chinned myself on the prop because my heater had died overnight.

My wife Jill was sure going to miss that old hairdryer. It had started many an engine in its day, not to mention what 100 mineral had unknowingly done for her hair-do.

Starting a radial is an adventure onto its own. Too much prime – she’ll probably cough but fail to pick up, leaking fuel out the intake. Too lean and she’ll backfire out the intake igniting the past mess.

It was -20 C and Bessy fired on the first blade and ticked like a clock. I kept the idle as low as it would go for the supercharger was turning 10 times faster in cool oil. The slower the idle - the slower the oil pump turns preventing excessive pressures.

Normally the aluminum pistons are splash lubricated and cooled by fins on their under side. At start up, the heat of combustion is transferred to warm the oil. The oil cooler is thermostatically bypassed until operating temperature was obtained. Cylinder choke requires warm up for a proper fit in an air cooled radial.

All I had to do was sit and wait. I was dressed for the cold in my arctic gear. Accidents are come as you are and you never know when you are going to be invited. You want to be prepared. Many CHAA members wanted to go with me on this trip. I didn’t take them for I knew they didn’t have the necessary clothing, nor did I have the room for more survival gear. My schedule was my own. My only intake was “birdseed” (my wife’s bulk dry mixture of nuts and trail mix which wouldn’t freeze and doubled as survival food) during daylight flying hours.

No coffees or teas ensured that I too had long range tanks. I couldn’t ask this of my friends. I didn’t want anyone slowing me down as time is of the essence in the winter. I had done this trip before in a Pitts Special with no heat in colder temperatures. It was my first time flying a Pitts.

East of Winnipeg found me in the snow of the same system for the third day in a row. The sun was dimly visible through the clouds above me and a detailed weather analysis showed that visibilities at their worst would be three to five miles on the Graphical Area Forecast. This new weather tool proved to be the most accurate of all my weather forecasts.

Weather guessers can be wrong all week and still collect a paycheck and be employed on the following Monday. I would never literally bet my life on a forecast. Speaking of which, Thunder Bay’s updated actual showed it dropping so I popped into Dryden where the weather was up to nine miles.

Landing T-Bay saw me way behind my imagined schedule for the day. After refueling and squeezing the last litre of the fourth case of cold 100 wt oil into the 8.5 Imperial gallon tank saw me weighing the decision to proceed north of Superior to Sault Ste. Marie arriving just before dark in marginal weather.

The Valhalla Inn around the corner suddenly looked awfully appealing. I knew some of the folks from the years of overnighting here. The oil temps had cooled enough that I could restart the engine and oil dilute (Introduce raw fuel into the oil system without boiling off this dilutent) – an old tech solution for multigrade oil.

According to the RCAF manuals, it also prevents sludge accumulation inside the engine. The last engine that CHAA sent out for major (it was way past TBO) had an excellent report. When asked what we were doing these young guys shuddered. I built the engine tent and borrowed a heater for the night. Checking the weather at dusk found The SOO IFR in snow. Do you ever get the feeling that things happen for a reason?

Today I arose knowing that I absolutely had to be home by tonight in order to start a course on a new plane at work Monday morning. The pressure was on. Get/home/itis was shifting into overdrive.

The Soo was still forecast to be marginal and further down line looked worse in lake effect. The American route below Lake Superior was 100 and a quarter in moderate snow due to the north winds. I talked to the FBO about leaving Bessy tied down indefinitely.

Having been built right here in Thunder Bay by elderly locals who used to work for Canadian Car and Foundry, he said he couldn’t charge me! He asked if the local paper could do a human interest story on her.

Thirty minutes later I was in a standby seat on a new CRJ 705 bound for Toronto where my car was parked. I saw nothing but undercast until just north of YYZ.

There sure are a lot of good honest people at the FBO’s trying to eke out a living in a Canadian winter. It was my privilege to meet some of them.

I’ll return for Bessy, hopefully with just one more fuel stop in The Soo. After all, we couldn’t have a trilogy without a third part.