FLYING Magazine

Pressed the red start button on my Electroair ignition system, and all the usual things happened: The starter engaged, two blades turned, and the spark lit off those garbage pail-sized Superior cylinders in my Conti 550. I released the starter button, but something was off. I could just barely hear and feel something besides the pistons firing—the starter was still spinning.

Let’s go back a bit. I last flew on December 13—a day trip to East Hampton to meet a TV writer. I left for Israel a few days later, where I spent a month researching my last Leading Edge column. When I returned, I had only a couple of days between my next trip to Miami to race my Kramer motorcycle at Miami-Homestead Speedway.

I was going to fly myself until my friend Josh offered to fly us down in his new TBM. I could write another column just on that single flight. Nonstop to Miami from upstate New York with a 60-knot headwind. A tip: Don’t get into a turboprop if you want to continue enjoying your piston single.

The morning Josh was coming to pick me up I decided to get to the airport early and fly. That was January 18. It had been over a month since my last flight and I was itching. I was also excited to use my new rig—an aging ATV with a plow that I welded a 2-inch ball onto paired with a new towbar. Between the very low temps and my hamfisted throttle application, I snapped the tow pin clean off the airplane as I pulled it out of the hangar. I headed off to the FBO to grab a few guys to come help me push the airplane back into the hangar.

Failed attempt No. 1.

READ MORE: The Wisdom of Keeping Transmissions Short and Sweet

Miami was no better. I had my first crash on a race bike in years. A simple low-side but a good ego bruising and a few hundred dollars in parts. At least my mom’s birthday dinner went off without me breaking anything else. On January 28, I flew back home and replaced the towing pin and pulled the airplane out. Carefully. I did an extra-long preflight since it was now over six weeks since she’d flown. Sitting in the cockpit with that familiar smell of leather, I was excited to knock the dust off both man and machine.

And then that runaway starter. As humans, we are so good at pattern recognition. With the engine running, it was barely perceptible, but I could just sense something was different. In fact, I have heard tales of this rare occurrence ending with a fried starter as some pilots continue their flight not knowing it is still engaged. I don’t know if I heard it or felt it, but either way, I yanked the mixture to cutoff. The engine died, and sure enough, the starter was still turning and the prop was still spinning.

My left hand snapped to the master switch and turned it off. Nothing. I started pulling circuit breakers after that. Unlike my autopilot and trim, which have pronounced, red collars, the starter breaker is not something you imagine needing to access with any urgency. I finally found it and pulled it. Still nothing. Prop still spinning. I imagined the starter starting to heat up. Will it catch fire?

READ MORE: Milking It: How to Extract Every Last Bit From Airplane and Pilot – FLYING Magazine

At that point, I started pulling every breaker on the panel. I probably looked like a kid at Six Flags playing whack-a-mole. Frantic describes it best. I pulled the flaps breaker, and the starter finally disengaged. I stared at the breaker wondering how on earth that could have done the trick. Of course, it didn’t.

Once the master switch failed at stopping this event, it should have been clear there was nothing else to do—just not to me in the heat of battle. The starter on my airplane is wired directly to the battery. In hindsight, the only thing I could have done was get out of the airplane and move around the spinning prop, open the cowling, and somehow disconnect the battery.

Failed attempt No. 2.

There are real downsides to having your mechanic based 2,000 miles away from your home field. At least Fernie answers his phone on weekends. He told me he had heard of this happening but that it was exceedingly rare and likely a bad solenoid. I ordered a new one, and Phil Taylor from Taylor Aviation came to the rescue a few days later. He and I changed it out in my unheated hangar. With the mixture in cutoff, I pushed the starter button and the prop turned. More importantly, it stopped when I released the button. Problem solved, but too late to fly.

I came back in the morning to finally go flying. Pulled the airplane back out onto the tarmac and flipped the master. Nothing. Dead battery.

Failed attempt No. 3.

READ MORE: The Things We Men Pilots Do to Impress Women

This has been one of the longest hiatuses in my 14 years of flying, closing in quickly on three months as I write this. So, what’s the takeaway? We often hear about the importance of currency as pilots. Staying sharp. Flying often. Our aircraft are no different. Machines, like human bodies, do not like sitting still. Joints need movement. So do cranks and cams. As pilots we fuss over additives and hacks when the solution is to just go fly.

I get it. We live in a society where quick fixes are ubiquitous. Supplements to pills. But nothing beats a good old workout.

I find that at my age bad things happen when I am stationary. So long as I keep it moving, everything stays lubed. Nothing freezes up. Would that old starter solenoid have opened properly had I been flying regularly? I would bet yes.

As if I needed further proof, I arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to yet another reminder. I went to visit my hangar in Van Nuys to grab my truck when I noticed oil all over the floor. My ’94 Ducati 900SS had spilled every last drop onto the epoxy. I have yet to pull the bodywork, but I am guessing a seal corroded and that was that.

Her crime? Stillness.

This column first appeared in the May 2024/Issue 948 of FLYING’s print edition.

The post Machines, Like Human Bodies, Do Not Like Sitting Still appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

Read More