Monday, June 13, 2016

Worst. Email. Ever.

My 35th birthday was on April 17th, and I spent it in about the best way I could imagine: Dawn and I cruising up the west coast in our Piper Pacer. The day prior we started in Torrance, CA, where the plane had been kept since our February Baja trip, worked our way north via Big Sur, Napa, and the Siskayou Mountains, then stopped for the night in scenic Ashland, OR. On my birthday we made it to Vancouver, WA in one long leg, then picked up my friend Brad and farted around a bit, landing at a mutual friend's private strip to check out his new Maule M5. Later that week I had a long PDX overnight, and I took advantage by taking my good friend Duncan and his two young boys for a loop of Mt. St. Helens and the Columbia River Gorge. This was the last flight before the annual I had scheduled with Aero Maintenance at Pearson Field (KVUO).

I few days later, I was still on a work trip when I got the email that every aircraft owner having their plane annualed dreads. "Bad News... we found a lot of brass & bronze in your oil." I had just changed the oil 15 hours prior in Southern California and had removed the oil screen for inspection as I always do; it was perfectly clean, and a magnet picked up no shavings. I called the lead mechanic at Aero Maintenance and he confirmed that this was a lot of metal, enough to immediately ground the airplane. If your engine starts making a little metal, standard procedure is to change the oil and fly it for a few hours and see if it makes more, but this wasn't the case here. He sent me a few photos with the oil screen and a ruler for reference, and they were damning: big flakes, likely a good half-teaspoon or more of them. I authorized a little more exploration and it didn't take long for bad to go to worse: in the sump and sump screen they found more flakes plus a large chunk of metal about 3/4" long that appeared to be a piece of main bearing. There was no question about it, the engine had to come off the airplane, and an expensive major overhaul was in the offing.


I looked over all my options. A local engine shop quoted a minimum of $23,000 for the overhaul. I could have it shipped out and a high-volume shop could do it for as little as $13,000. Both quotes were potentially on the low end as I had a hollow crankshaft with inner diameter pitting that was virtually condemned by AD, and my O-320-B2A was a narrow deck that requires expensive factory cylinders. If I was really looking to splurge I could buy a remanufactured engine from Lycoming for close to twice what I paid for the airplane. The cheapest option was to find a mid-time used O-320 and hope it lasted longer than this one. The last option was to simply sell her as she sat. I doubted there was much of a market for Pacers with blown-up engines but figured I could at least get $8 or $9k for her. This represented a major loss from the $23k purchase price, but I was likely to lose that much or more by having the overhaul done. Remember, we were already planning to sell the plane later this summer, after flying it to Montana and then up to Alaska.

I finally concluded that it was stupid to stick a ton of money into a plane that I was going to sell anyways, as much as I wanted to take her to Alaska. Our house was in the process of selling, we were getting serious about the boat search, and there was just too much going on to commit to a major resuscitation of our airplane. Better to find someone qualified and local to do it. I listed the plane for $10k on and was immediately inundated with response. Turns out there is a market for run-out Pacers. Several people dropped by Pearson Field to look at the plane, and an A&P from near Anacortes WA who works for Boeing ended up buying her. After overhaul, he intends to fly her to Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. That makes me feel better about what was overall a pretty major bummer. That engine had less than 1000 hours since major overhaul and I had babied it during my ownership. That said, it was overhauled in 1988 and there were years prior to my ownership where it was hardly ever run. Thus were sown the seeds of its destruction, I'm guessing.

There's one other thing that kept this from being a major downer for me. At some point in the last 15 hours, that engine had started tearing itself apart from the inside out, and yet it ran perfectly. Many of those 15 hours were spent over extremely inhospitable terrain. There were quite a few cases where my best option after engine failure would have been to find the flattest part of a mountainside and put it between two trees. That last flight in particular, with my buddy and his two young boys in the plane as we circled Mt. St. Helens and traversed miles of rugged tree-covered hills to the Gorge, and then flew low over downtown Portland, could have ended very, very badly. I'm so thankful that the engine kept running and got us all back to an airport safely. I'm also glad I decided to have the annual done in Vancouver; I was originally planning on having it done in Montana.

Shortly after I sold the plane, but before the new owner showed up to take off the wings and trailer her home, I had another PDX overnight. I took the opportunity to go across the river and retrieve my headsets, camping equipment, and personal effects from the airplane. I walked around her one last time, softly drumming the fabric, ducked my head inside the cockpit for a whiff of that familiar old airplane smell, and patted the cowling as I walked away. In eighteen short months of ownership we had 200 flight hours and a lot of great adventures together. Dawn and I will miss our good old Pacer for a long time, I think. That said, I suspect there will be some other great old airplanes in our future too.