Some adventures are simple. Pack supplies and a map and go. Boom: adventure!
Tilt Shift was never going to work that way. The trip always involved acquiring a new and serious set of skills, an aircraft, and a database of knowledge that I didn’t have. Learning requires patience; patience requires discipline; discipline requires commitment… and on we go down the rabbit hole. These are the psychological prerequisites.
Then there are the physical ones: a working aircraft, properly equipped and registered. I don’t need to go further than that. That’s the wall I’ve been slamming up against these past months.
Let’s start with Mr. Shakey. I don’t know that I can pinpoint exactly when it all began. All I know is that, suddenly, keeping my trike from flipping me off the runway became of concern. The wheels would touch down (sometimes smoothly too; well done, me!) and then the trike would begin to oscillate back and forth violently. Sometimes it took both Doug and I to muscle down the wing and dampen the shimmy. (My previous definition of “shimmy” -- meaning “a dance move usually accompanied by jazz hands” -- was eradicated).
There was no way Doug was going to allow a student pilot to solo in an aircraft that could potentially send his sorry, flustered ass shooting off the runway. I wasn’t at all disagreeing with him. And there it was: another wall, another delay, another round of frustrating phone calls, and the possibility that Experimental Weight Shift N6688L might not be going anywhere except via FedEx Dreamliner… in a packing crate.
We tried everything. We tried to “toe-out” the trike, thereby increasing the angle between the wheel path and the direction of the plane’s motion. This involved attaching straps to my airframe and hauling back on them while simultaneously kicking the struts out into position. I can’t tell you how many hours of measuring, hypothesizing, and teeth-sucking went by. I noticed that the front tire wasn’t holding air adequately and, thinking it might be abetting Mr. Shakey, spent 2-3 hours wrestling a tube into it (and swearing a red streak under my breath). This still did not fix the problem.
When a well-respected member of the trike pilot community explained to me that trikes like mine simply shimmy, and the only solution is to learn to always land slow, I thought it was the end. That might be all right for the weekend pilot who wants to putter around over his cornfield when the weather’s perfect, but not for me. Not for 40+ days of flying across the country with Stephen’s life in my hands, when there will be times that I need to land fast without wondering if the trike will go cartwheeling into a ditch once I set it down.
One day, I had arranged to be at the airport when Bill Sherlock, the same mechanic who had fixed my engine post-engine out, would also be there. Me, Doug, Bill, and Tom were all standing around my trike, picking up the nose, spinning the wheel, hypothesizing. I was poking around inside when I discovered a slightly loose bracket. It couldn’t possibly be that silly, right? RIGHT?
That bracket happened to hold the steering damper and it was preventing the damper from working for the first 10 degrees of movement. It was enough to cause the oscillation I’d experienced. We bolted it tight, glued it in with locktite, and took it for a spin. No shimmy, despite several “exciting” landings in midday turbulence (the jump plane saw us coming in on final and radioed “little bumpy up there for you guys today, huh?”).
Front fork fixed, it was time to get everything sorted out for me to start flying solo. This meant securing insurance, a registration, and installing an in-dash radio (thanks to Manouch, our friend, fellow pilot, and electrical wiz). Unfortunately, when I started up the engine to test the new radio with it running, I discovered another problem: the key switch was sticking, in turn causing my starter motor to continuously run.
I ordered a new key switch. Naturally, the manufacturer was backordered so I had to wait 10 days.
They sent the wrong switch. Head → wall.
What has all of this taught me? What’s the big takeaway from being grounded for approximately two months, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if I’ve forgotten how to fly?
I don’t know and I think it’s right that I don’t know because the takeaway, the “big event,” is in the future, waiting to surprise me.
I’ve lived in Sacramento for over a year and will spend a second summer here; it’s something that I never intended. I also didn’t intend to find a sweet one-room cottage and six awesome roommates in the adjacent house. I didn’t intend to spend my birthday sitting in with an impromptu funk band at a friend’s BBQ. There’s a lot I didn’t plan for and that’s just fine with me.
Being a pilot and an adventurer means being fluid, to adapt to newness but to remain, at my core, confident. “I endure, I conquer” does not mean “if I just force this, if I just push and push and push, I will conquer.” Endure means to remain in existence; to last. I wouldn’t call my mini-purgatory painful, but it is difficult. It’s difficult because it is teaching me to be true to my Polish roots: to be goddamn stubborn as well as patient. My challenges do not scream “ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” They are here to test my resolve.
After the starter switch discovery, we (the pilots of the hangar) were standing around N6688L talking about the issue. I expressed something along the lines of “why does this keep happening to me?” Doug spread his hands and said “Hey, it’s a machine. It’s not going to be perfect indefinitely. You’ve got to maintain it; that’s part of owning an aircraft [paraphrased].” I was ashamed of how impatient I’d been.
Congratulations: you’re all caught up. My starter switch arrives on Monday. Stay tuned.