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Saga of a “straightforward” annual

By Suzanne Ramsey

Our 2005 Annual was proceeding “swimmingly,” looking to be one of our best yet … our aircraft consistently well maintained, therefore no real snags, very straightforward – no worries, we were going to get off easy this time.

Annual completed, closing up to send our aircraft back to us and its own hangar, when a sharp eyed mechanic (Trevor) noticed under the wing above the gear door what appeared to be a fuel stain - “likely nothing major, but better check it out.”  

Which is when our “straightforward” annual went up in smoke!

Upon closer inspection of the left wing spar, it was discovered that there was a crack. This called for a visual check of the right wing spar, which revealed similar cracks. The long and short of it was these cracks effectively invalidated our C of A - we were now officially grounded, owning a bird that could not fly!

I have since learned these cracks occur because tension and compression loads in the side-stay assembly cause the side-stay assembly support bracket to flex the spar web, which over time causes fatigue cracks to appear in the web, such cracks routinely appearing on aircraft in various places. Should these cracks appear in critical places, Service Bulletins and/or AD's are issued. 

As we investigated all of our options, initially assuming ours was an isolated case for this problem, subsequent to Transport becoming involved, we discovered that some 800 +/- Piper aircraft were listed with similarly positioned wear cracks and that in fact 238 of our aircraft type are listed in the database with problems similar to ours.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is likely that Piper would have designed the side-stay assembly support bracket differently to avoid this problem, however, at this point in time, they are likely indifferent to it since it is apparently not considered to be a safety issue, which begs the question, if not a safety issue, why does it automatically invalidate our C of A if not repaired?  

Meantime, we concluded that our options were to either abandon our aircraft altogether, losing everything or fix it, whatever the cost. We opted for the latter and thus began the search for a remedy. Our Maintenance shop looked into repair possibilities for us, it appeared that not too many practical choices were evident. 

Then, through a process of elimination, we found Blackhurst Aviation Inc., a U.S. certified Repair Station (CRS B1JR600N) with a Specialized Rating for repairing wings and flight controls, located in Embarrass, a small town north of Hibbing, Minnesota. 

Our maintenance people in Peterborough, Ont. were initially slated to remove the wings, which we were then to drive to Minnesota ourselves, but their time frames could not jive because of prior commitments.

Upon direct discussions with John Blackhurst, he informed me that he regularly worked in conjunction with another shop located at the Grand Rapids MN Airport, Airways Inc., who undertake all the disassembly and reassembly of wings for Blackhurst’s repair projects, and that as luck would have it, they had some slack time in February - if we could get our aircraft to them right away.

So, back to Transport to look into obtaining a Ferry Permit – which was granted based upon an affidavit from our repair shop that our aircraft was airworthy for the described flight. All conditions for the flight were clearly stipulated in the Permit, which allowed for one only flight between CYPQ and KGPZ, with one mid-route stop for customs and fuel – no deviations other than for an unscheduled emergency landing?

Further to the Canadian Ferry Permit, a Special Flight Authorization had to be obtained from the FAA for the part of our flight through U.S. airspace. This was duly obtained, and specially endorsed for IFR flight, should it be needed.

Paperwork in place, we awaited an appropriate weather window, hoping for the most direct route which would have been via American Sault Sainte Marie. However, the Wx up that way remained totally uncooperative, which subsequently proved fortuitous for us.  Thus, when suitable weather finally presented itself, we arranged customs at one of our more frequent stops, Grand Rapids, MI, and uncustomary for us, we departed VFR Thursday January 19, 2006.  

As we progressed westbound, conditions continued improving and we figured that our plans for making it to KGPZ that same day were well on track until our usual careful scan of our instrument panel revealed another “now what ?” Our vacuum gauge was red lined!

A quick email in flight to our home shop from my trusty Palm Tr?o, to cut a long story short, it was assessed that the vacuum regulator had failed! So much for the best made plans of Mice and Men.

Upon landing at Grand Rapids MI (KGRR), following prompt and courteous customs processing because the officer “knows us” from previous trips, the Maintenance people at Northern Air Inc. quickly confirmed a failed vacuum regulator. Since they did not have one on their shelf, we were obviously not continuing on to Grand Rapids MN (KGPZ) that day.

A new regulator was immediately ordered from Piper - the Northern Air staff booked us into a hotel and we spent the subsequent two days in the town of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I must make a special mention here as to how all of the folk at Northern Air more than lived up to their own Mission Statement “to maximize their customer’s time with un-compromised quality, service and safety,” with special appreciation to their state of the art, 24/7 Repair facility. Wow!

The replacement regulator arrived early Saturday morning, was promptly installed, and with the weather cooperating, we were ready to depart for KGPZ by late morning. 

Taking our leave of the efficient folk of Northern Air, we proceeded for an uneventful 3.3 hrs northward, once again VFR, this time with a very steady vacuum needle, to arrive KGPZ mid afternoon, under lowering ceilings from an incoming weather system out of Canada.

Not being on a fixed schedule, we soon discovered there were few options for us to leave Grand Rapids that day. Open airline tickets (from Hibbing) were prohibitive, there was no rental car available that weekend out of Grand Rapids, and we were too late for the one option of public (bus) transportation via Hibbing to Duluth, which is where we had to go in order to hop a Greyhound Bus that was to leave at 8 am the following morning for Minneapolis, where we were to be picked up by friends for a stay with them in Rochester, MN.

The solution to this transportation dilemma turned out to be that we were loaned the Airways Inc courtesy van to drive ourselves to Duluth. There, we found a hotel that coincidentally, just happened to be literally around the corner from the Greyhound Bus Station. We left the van at the hotel for pick up by someone from Airways Inc during their next visit to Duluth.

Following a pleasant evening in Duluth, a timely departure the following morning and a quite enjoyable bus ride, despite areas of freezing rain, we saw quite a bit of the very forested Minnesota countryside and the attractive Twin Cities, as we arrived on schedule at the Minneapolis GreyHound bus terminal, where our friends were waiting.

During our week’s stay in Rochester MN, since we now had fixed dates, we booked a round trip flight on line with Northwest Air (Minneapolis/Toronto/Minneapolis – Hibbing). Another interesting experience, this was my very first computerized check in – no line up, no attendant – just a PC terminal that already had one’s name in it, read one’s passport and provided boarding passes and receipts – leaving just one person who took one’s baggage. All in all, a very efficient operation ! 

Once back home, we awaited news of how the wing work was progressing in northern Minnesota

News was not long in coming, and Airways Inc. had the wings off before the end of that first week.

The wings were picked up from Airways Inc. by John Blackhurst and transported in his specially rigged trailer to his shop located at Embarrass, a small town situated north of Hibbing. The new spars from Piper had been delivered there earlier through Desmoines Flying Service, allowing work to begin immediately upon arrival of the wings at the Blackhurst Aviation Inc. facility.

Around mid February, the repaired wings were returned to Airways Inc. at the Grand Rapids Airport and the re-mantling of our aircraft was underway.

At the latter end of February, a completion date was provided, so we made our arrangements with North West Air to reverse our route on February 28.

Following a great flight, we had a fair wait in the State of the Art Minneapolis Air Terminal for our connecting flight to the Hibbing Airport. We observed our commuter arrive, this being our first flight in a Saab.

Following an interesting night flight that delivered us to Chisholm-Hibbing without incident, we spent the night, and the following morning hopped a bus for the hour long trip to Grand Rapids, where we went straight to the Airways facility.

Airways had performed an initial test run-up the previous day and our aircraft was ready and waiting for us to undertake our own test flight.

The weather being favorable, this we did, during which we encountered just one problem that would delay our planned departure for Rochester, MN that same day.

The pitot heater was non-functional. Upon landing, after inspection, it was assessed that the protective coating for the Pitot wiring had turned to powder from corrosion, and the wiring itself had become very thin and brittle - the only solution being to obtain a full replacement heater and assembly. It was ordered and was to be delivered within 24 hours.

This meant we would overnight in Grand Rapids, and Airways once again supplied us with their courtesy car for transportation – which allowed us to spend the rest of the day visiting the area.

The following morning, the new pitot installed and tested, we took our leave of our accommodating new friends at Airways heading south without further incident, to spend a week with our friends in Rochester, MN.

Our eventual return flight to Peterborough was quite uneventful, up until the last few minutes which proved to be the worst turbulence for our approach and landing that we have ever had to contend with. Happily and efficiently we handled the touch down without any breakage, but for sure, this whole experience was from start to finish, one for the memory books. How much did it all cost? Don’t ask!