Monday, January 24, 2005


Snow Day

The blizzard came and left us with a good amount of snow. How much is hard for a layman to measure, particularly with the drifting, but it looks like at least 12 inches, and it was enough to cancel just about everything on Sunday. Coming back from church (I missed the cancellation notice) I stopped off at the airport to get the snow shovel from the hangar. They were just starting to dig out, and I unintentionally became a personal beneficiary of their efforts.

It didn't look that deep between the hangars, so I pressed on into the drift. (my tracks are to the left of the plowed path) I got to the far end of the buildings before getting completely bogged down. The snow was up to the floor of the car, and I couldn't move at all. I fetched the shovel from the hangar and started digging. After some time, I had cleared enough space to turn the car around, and then Lou showed up in his big earthmover. He shoveled a path down the middle between the two hangars, and I was able to make my escape.

The Yellowbird wasn't as lucky. Fortunately she wasn't completely buried, but the wind had taken the tarps from her right wing and left her surrounded by drifts up to 24 inches deep.

After my adventure with the car, I wasn't about to dig her out, but I came back later in the day after Lou had finished plowing and I cleaned her off and cleared a path from her tiedown spot up to the tarmac.

This poor little 150 won't be going anywhere soon.

They were still blowing snow off the taxiways and runways as I left. It was a pretty dramatic sight, but I was happy to head for home and warmth.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Cold Day Flying

Weather and a busy holiday schedule have kept Yellowbird and I on the ground since mid December. In fact, her New Year's Day oil change has been the only time she has stirred in four weeks, and that was only for a 10 minute ground run to warm up the engine. Sunday afternoon provided a rare opportunity to get some exercise before another mild winter snowfall rolled in that evening, and we were both eager to get in the air for our first flight of 2005.

A few days of warm weather had been enough to clear her wings of the ice and snow left from an earlier winter storm, but Sunday was chilly, with temperatures in the mid twenties. I plugged in the oil pan heater and put a space heater in the cabin to warm up her vitals, then left for an hour to let electricity do what the weak winter sun was unable to do. After returning, I warmed her engine with a propane-fueled space heater. I should have had no problems pulling her out of the tiedown spot, but moisture in the tiedown ropes had jammed the knots, and the chocks and main tires were frozen solidly to the rubber mud flaps that she sits on. It took a few whacks with a two-by-four to knock the chocks loose, but I needed the help of a friendly neighbor pilot to pull her free, care being taken not to leave any rubber behind.

Preflight required a few extra checks to make sure that there was no ice frozen inside the controls or propeller spinner. Fuel samples were carefully checked, not only for water, but also for ice crystals that could clog the fuel system. The wings and stabilator were also checked for any ice or frost on the flying surfaces that might disrupt the airflow. The space heater in the cabin had cleared the windows of frost, and I was happy to finish the walkaround and take shelter in the relative warmth of the cockpit. After two weeks of inactivity, the battery was still healthy, and Yellowbird stirred to life fairly quickly with six shots of the primer. I let her run for several minutes while I listened to her familiar voice with an ear attentive for any unfamiliar sounds. Finally, with the oil and cylinder head temperature needles moving off the pegs, she was ready to move under her own power.

We departed from the Echo intersection of runway 02, and Yellowbird fairly leapt off the ground in the cold dense air. Heading north past Northampton, we did some maneuvers to ease the stiffness from our limbs. Continuing towards Deerfield, I gave her full throttle, and with 2,500 RPM, I was mildly astonished to see the indicated airspeed pushing to within a few tics of the yellow arc.

Orange Municipal Airport We turned eastward at Greenfield, and headed over to take a look at Orange. From 3,000 feet, the airport looked quiet with the exception of one little Cessna that departed from runway 01 as we flew past. Giving him a wide berth, we circled the field and then headed south.

The not quite frozen Quabbin The Quabbin Reservoir was largely clear of ice, and the crusty snow covered hills were neither scenic nor hospitable. We could have continued for the entire length of the reservoir, but the lowering clouds foretold of the forecast snow to come, so we headed west towards friendlier territory and home.

Familiar grounds We descended over Hadley, past the snow covered fields etched by snowmobile tracks, and contacted the tower with our landing intentions.

Cold Day at the OxbowTurning south to enter a right downwind leg for 02 we saw the Oxbow with a solid cap of ice. (here's a view from a warmer day)

Downwind for 02, full stop Clouds were showing in the east as we entered the pattern, but we were safe on the ground with a smooth landing before the first flakes arrived. Back in her bed, with cabin cover, wing tarps, and tiedown ropes snug and secure, the Yellowbird settled down to wait out the snow, dreaming of a sunny day to come.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Third Time's a Charmer

During July of 2003, which a whopping three hours of dual instruction time in my logbook, I picked up a copy of the Aviation Consumer Used Aircraft Guide for some summer leisure reading. At that time, my knowledge of general aviation aircraft was limited to what I picked up as a kid from reading spare issues of the AOPA Pilot magazine during the early 1970's. Now, as a middle aged adult, I was just beginning the six month journey towards my private pilot's license, and although I had no aspirations of aircraft ownership at that time, I did want to familiarize myself with the different types of airplanes I might encounter. As I read, I occasionally dreamed of owning my own airplane, and several favorites began to emerge from the pages. A Bonanza would be nice, but I would have to dream myself an income sufficient to afford one. I had always like the looks of the Bellanca Viking, but the challenge of caring for a fabric covered, wooden winged airplane in the harsh New England climate was more than I felt I could handle. Then there was a sporty looking four seater from Cessna that I had never heard of before. The author spoke of an airplane with few flaws and many virtues. Sleek, roomy, and a joy to fly, it was a rare bird, prized by its owners, but overlooked by the general public. This was the Cessna 177 Cardinal. In my dreams I decided that I would like a 1970 or later model 177B, the most capable and refined of the breed. Then I stopped dreaming, put the book back on the shelf, and went back to learning basic airwork in Faithful Instructor George's comparatively pudgy Skyhawk.

Six months later, on January 4th, 2004, I found myself, on the edge of a dream, on the rainy ramp at Lawrence Municipal Airport, examining the third of three Cardinals that I was actually considering purchasing. The first one I had looked at a few days earlier had proved disappointing. It looked good from a distance, but up close, a number of flaws spoke together of an airplane that had suffered neglect. The second Cardinal was a healthy bird, but showing its age. Today's Cardinal was also showing the telltale signs of thirty years in the sky, but there was a subtle difference. Yesterday I had seen an airplane that had been well cared for. Today I saw one that had been loved.

He huddled on the ramp under a full canopy cover. Foam rubber plugs filled the air intakes in the nose and the fresh air vents in the wings, and a fabric boot covered the tailcone to keep any feathered aircraft from nesting within. He had a sharp looking red, white and blue paint scheme in the standard pattern for the 1973 model year. The colors were fading in several spots, but he was still a handsome airplane.

Howie at the CFO Mt.Washington flyin And he was definitely a he. He had a name engraved on a plaque affixed to his tail. He was known by that name to everyone at the airport. His name was Howie.

One of Howie's owners met me on the ramp and opened the cabin door. Inside was as close to a perfect original interior as you could hope to find in a thirty year old airplane. The seats and upholstery were still in good condition, and care had been taken to keep them that way. Automotive style floor mats protected the carpet from muddy feet, and a small tub of desiccant in the baggage compartment guarded against excess humidity. The only flaw was a small chip in the plastic cover of the center console.

Quite nice for 30 years, eh? His instrument panel had seen some upgrades, including a newer radio and transponder, and a Loran navigation unit. Unusually, the engine instruments had been rearranged from their original layout. The manifold pressure gauge had been moved to the right side of the panel while the ADF indicator had been moved to the spot normally occupied by the tachometer. The tachometer was now in the space vacated by the manifold pressure gage. This bit of musical chairs grouped the ADF indicator together with the two VOR indicators, mimicking the panel layout of Cessna Skyhawks of similar vintage, but it separated the two engine instruments.

Compared to the Cardinal I had seen the day before, Howie was one year older, and had about 400 more hours on his airframe. His engine had been overhauled about 1,300 hours ago, and had seen a top overhaul 900 hours later. He was about $9,000 less expensive.

It was a close call between Howie and the Cardinal of yesterday. Each had desirable features that were lacking in the other. One was more expensive, but the fresher engine would mean a lower hourly cost for the engine overhaul reserve fund. I hadn't had the chance to look at Howie's logs, but his excellent condition suggested a high quality of care. Six months ago, the idea of owning airplane was only a whimsical dream. Today, it was a very real possibility, with two fairly strong candidates in the running. I had yet to fly in either one, but I had enough information on each to at least begin a more detailed evaluation. And the lovely January weather would give me nearly two weeks to weigh the options.

Monday, January 03, 2005



On a rainy Saturday morning last year, I collected my Cardinal research materials, hopped in the car, and headed east from Westfield. This was the second expedition in my search for a Cessna Cardinal. My quarry this time was a 177B advertised by a dealer at an airport near Cape Cod. Three hours later, I met Steve in his office in the small terminal. He was kindly older gentleman, the kind you sometimes find at small airports, and he had the air about him of someone who had spent most of his life around airplanes. Dodging the ice still in the parking lot, we climbed into his car for the short drive out to the ramp where the Cardinal awaited.

She sat quietly in the cold drizzle, a basically stock 177B, with original paint and interior. The 30 year old paint was in fairly good condition, but showing some chips and weathering. A walk around her showed nothing obviously amiss, a noticeable difference from the Cardinal I had looked at two days ago. Inside, the carpet was worn, but still whole, The seats were in decent shape, but some of the interior plastic trim pieces were brittle with age and cracked.

This was fashionable in 1974 The interior colors were a combination of caramel brown and off-white, with a little bit of imitation wood trim on the doors. It was dated, but tasteful, at least by mid 1970's standards.

Basic, but capable The instrument panel had changed little since she was first built. The two original navigation/communication radios had been replaced with more modern digital units, but the rest of the avionics were the factory standard ARC items. She had a basic single-axis autopilot, but no advanced navigation components such as GPS or Loran. A digital chronometer was the only real addition to what was essentially a stock panel.

After a few more minutes of examination, we headed back to the warmth of Steve's office to have a look through the maintenance logs. Faithful Instructor George had walked me through the logs of his Skyhawk in preparation for the oral exam portion of my private pilot's checkride, so I knew how to find the essential entries, but I was still a neophyte when it came to judging an airplane's maintenance history. Fortunately, the logs were clearly written and easily read. A steady succession of annual inspections and oil changes progressed though the pages, dating from the first 25, 50, and 100 hour inspections when she was new back in the early 1970's up until her most recent annual inspection. For the last decade at least, she had been cared for by the same mechanic, working out of the maintenance shop on the field where she now lived. Periodically, various items had been replaced as they wore out, but there was no record of any major mechanical failures. The only unusual entry concerned a hard landing in the early 1991's that had warranted replacing the nose wheel. She appeared to have been flown regularly, but her airframe was still young in hourly terms. Her engine had been overhauled by a reputable shop only two years ago.

My impression was of an airplane that hade been well cared for mechanically. She appeared healthy to the eye of a new pilot like me. True, she was showing her age, but the important thing to me was there was no indication of abuse or neglect.

Military NCO's conducting an inspection of the troops will learn to evaluate a soldier's uniform at first glance. If the obvious items are in shape, it's a good chance that the minor details have been attended to as well. But if even one minor discrepancy shows - a button undone or a thread hanging loose from the corner of a pocket - then the offending soldier is in for a much closer look and it's a good bet that he'll be spending his liberty time scrubbing floors or peeling potatoes. When I saw my first Cardinal, I was immediately struck by several obvious flaws that hinted that she had not received the best of care. Today's Cardinal told a different story. If the logs noted that a rivet had been replace on the upper cowling, the rivet in question was indistinguishable to my eye from its neighbors installed at the factory. If that much care had been taken for one rivet, I was much more confident that the rest of the airplane had been treated just as well.

I expressed my interest to Steve, and we made tentative plans for me to take her up for a demo flight once the weather improved. She was the second Cardinal I had met, and she was already in first place, but there was yet another one to be seen...

Sunday, January 02, 2005



Now that we've changed the oil, it's time to do some detective work on the old oil filter. This will involve cutting the filter open and inspecting the filter element for any debris that might be a sign of trouble within the engine. As even a healthy engine grinds its way towards its next overhaul (or its next catastrophic failure) it will normally generate a small amount of metallic debris in addition to the usual grit and grime associated with internal combustion. These impurities, as well as anything that sneaks past the air filter and survives the combustion cycle, will be trapped by the oil filter and will be noticeable when the filter is cut open and inspected. We'll be happy to find a small amount of debris in the filter. What we don't want to see is a considerable amount of metal particles, or valves, or camshafts, or pistons.

Before we start, here are a few safety issues to be aware of

  1. Many things in life are sharp. With the exception of cheese and some musical instruments, these sharp things can hurt you, so be careful.
  2. Used engine oil and petroleum solvents do not taste very good. Try not to drink them.
  3. If you are married, do not cut open your oil filter in the kitchen. If you are a bachelor, go ahead and do it there, but don't let your mother find out.

With that said, let's begin.

Aircraft engine oil filter and filter cutter The materials we need are few, and consist primarily of the old filter and an oil filter cutter. Filter cutters are available from many aviation supply retailers. Sporty's has them, as does Aircraft Spruce. I got mine from Sporty's. It has the added advantage of being useful as a can opener. As such, it does a very good job since it removes the entire end of the can, allowing you to get all the soup out without cutting yourself. Let's face it, you already spend more money feeding the airplane than you do feeding yourself, so you'll need all the nourishment you can get. You'll also need a plastic tub to go prospecting in, and an old toothbrush to scrub the filter element. If you are a bachelor, you can use your regular toothbrush, but you can plan on remaining a bachelor if you do so.

Oil filter in filter cutter The first step is to place the filter in the cutter and tighten the vice screw enough to hold the filter firmly against the rollers. Don't try and puncture the filter at this time, you'll only dent it. If you enjoy bloodshed, you can leave the safety wire on the filter like I did.

Cutting the oil filter Then, rotate the filter while tightening the vice screw every few turns. It will take some time, but eventually you'll see that the cutting blade is doing its job.

Oil filter with end removed The end of the filter will come loose when its ready. Don't ask me why, but I find this photo very unnerving.

Disassembled oil filter Here we see the filter cartridge removed from the canister. It's pretty messy, so don't wear your good clothes, unless you're a bachelor and they already have oil stains on them.

Oil filter element removed from cartridge Next, use a sharp utility knife to cut the paper filter element from the cartridge. At this point, you can discard everything but the filter element, although the filter canister can make a nice coffee cup once you file the cut edge smooth.

Rinsing the oil filter element Pour some solvent (mineral spirits works, as will Stoddard solvent) in the tub and start scrubbing the pleats of the filter element with the old toothbrush. You only need to scrub the outside of the element, but you can do both sides if you are anal, or if you forgot which side was the outer one.

Examining the oil filter element After squeezing out the excess oil and solvent, visually inspect the pleats for anything, particularly shiny metal particles, that may be caught in the element. It's a good idea to pass a magnet over the surface to see if it picks up anything ferrous.

Minimal debris from an aircraft oil filter Next, carefully pour out the solvent and oil still remaining in the tub. A coffee filter or piece of chamois cloth can be used to strain the runoff. You are interested in what's left behind, so don't pour that out. Again take your magnet and pass it through the debris at the bottom of the tub. A small amount of fine powder and grit as shown here is normal, as is a small amount of metal particles. My mechanic said that if the collected debris will fit on a fingernail, then it's generally no cause for concern. That's a pretty subjective evaluation - if you find a lot of metal, ground your plane and have your mechanic look at the debris to see if it warrants closer examination of the engine.

Finally, dispose of the old filter pieces, the oil and solvent, and any other oily refuse in accordance with applicable standards of good environmental stewardship. That means don't leave it all in the kitchen wastebasket - unless you're a bachelor.

Saturday, January 01, 2005


One Year Ago Today...

...I met my first Cardinal.

The path that led me from blissful ignorance of such a thing as a Cessna Cardinal, to curiosity, to fascination, to determination to own one, and finally, to blissful ownership, was a long one, but by the end of 2003, with the ink still wet on my newly earned Private Pilot license, I was ready to go Cardinal shopping.

My first lead took me to southeastern Massachusetts, where a 1973 177B was being offered for sale by a dealer. Armed with the CFO pre-purchase inspection checklist, I tagged along with Faithful Instructor George and one of his IFR students on a cross country trip to where the Cardinal awaited.

This was my first up-close look at a Cardinal. On paper, she looked nice, and the photos sent by the dealer depicted an attractive airplane. But on that chilly January morning, I found that looks can be deceiving.

(The registration number has been obscured in these photos out of consideration for the current owner.)

She looks sharp from here She was a good fifty-foot airplane, meaning that from fifty feet away, she was a knockout. Recently painted, and with a three-bladed propeller and chrome spinner, she looked great. Up close, the details spoke a different story.

The stabilator is a different color from the rest of the airplane First, that nifty paint job was not holding up well. It was wearing in several spots, revealing the original paint underneath and indicating that the plane had not been stripped prior to painting. On top of that, a clear topcoat had been applied, and this clear coat was shedding badly in several areas. Finally, the stabilator had apparently been repainted separately and it did not match anything on the rest of the airplane. The scheme was nice, and the colored stripes had been neatly applied, but this did not look like a professionally done paint job.

A close look reveals many flaws That shiny spinner naturally drew attention to the nose, and unfortunately, the nose told a similar story. Most noticeably, the engine appeared to be sagging in its mounts. The propeller spinner was not aligned with the opening in the cowl. Instead it was about an inch and a half too low. The cowling itself showed evidence of some curious repairs, with strange patches in places and rivets sloppily replaced with sheet metal screws. The engine is perhaps the most important component of an airplane, but if the exterior of the nose showed this level of poor workmanship, I wasn't going to expect much better inside.

Shabby work, sadly Finally I turned to the cockpit. The advertisement showed some nice enhancements to the avionics, and the seller had told me that the seats, carpeting and upholstery were recently redone, but a glance inside showed that the cabin interior was in poor shape just as the exterior was. The avionics upgrades looked nice, but the instrument panel did not inspire confidence. Some switches had been replaced with obviously nonstandard items, and the trim panel for the center console was missing altogether. The seats and carpet were nice, but the upholstery on the cabin walls and doors was in poor shape, with many tears and snags. It was generally very shabby, and considering that it was a recent upgrade, I was not impressed.

It could have been a great airplane, but I suspected that the prior owner had insufficient resources to make good on his ambitions. Sadly, I returned home and resumed my search. I was to find that there are indeed, other fish in the ocean and other birds in the sky.


Let's Change the Oil

Today, At exactly 2250 hours on the engine, according to the tachometer, Yellowbird got a fresh helping (8 quarts) of Shell 15W-50 oil. Her last oil change was done during her annual inspection in August of last year, about 29 engine hours ago.

25 hours is often quoted as the recommended interval between oil changes. Yellowbird has an oil filter, (not all small aircraft have one) which means that she could go for a longer time between oil changes, but I'd like to keep in the 25 hour range. Clean fresh oil means a lot to an engine's happiness. Today's weather calls for mild temperatures, so this offers a rare opportunity to do some outdoor work without risking frostbite. The engine has been run for a few minutes on the ground to warm up the oil, and we're ready to start.

Cowlings off, we're ready to start Changing the oil on a Cardinal is fairly easy, and in some ways, it's easier than doing the same to a car. In fact, the most difficult part is putting the cowling back on afterwards. The first step is to remove the top and bottom cowlings to gain access to the engine compartment. This involves removing 12 screws and loosening about 24 cowl fasteners, as well as disconnecting the cowl flap actuators and unplugging the landing light wiring harness.

Draining the oil Once this is done, draining the oil is a simple matter of fitting a length of rubber hose over the quick drain plug on the oil pan and letting the oil drain into a handy bucket. While the oil is draining, the oil cooler is also drained by disconnecting the oil line. It can take several minutes for the oil to drain, so this is a good opportunity to examine the engine for any leaks or other anomalies.

Fresh filter of oil with a safety wire garland Once the oil has drained fully, the oil filter is removed using a 1" socket fitted over the nut on the end of the filter. The new filter is marked with the date, engine hours, and aircraft registration number, and installed just like an automotive type oil filter. It is then tourqued to the specifications stated in the Cardinal service manual, and safety wire is twisted between the tab on the end of the filter and the engine accessory section to prevent the filter from coming loose.

Finally, after ensuring that the oil filter, quick drain plug, and oil cooler line are properly secured, eight quarts of AeroShell 15W-50 oil are poured down the oil filler tube. Then comes the chore of buttoning everything back up. The Cardinal has many virtues, but ease of attaching the lower cowling is not among them. It's at least a two person job, and a fresh layer of mud on the ground on an unseasonably warm day only adds to the enjoyment.

At last the job is done, and it's time to head indoors to thaw out. Then it's back to the airport to remove the top cowl again and plug the landing light back in, since I forgot that item when I previously put everything back together. Now at last Yellowbird is ready for the next 25 hours of aerial adventure, and I'm ready for dinner.