The Flying Circus: Moby Dave
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
"Pull back!" I bellowed into the headset.
"I am!" my student yelled.
There was no panic in his shout but there was in mine. The Lake amphibian aircraft was approaching the half-way mark on the 5,000-foot runway. We were well beyond the airplane's published rotation point.
"Pull harder!" I barked.
The handbook for the Lake said it would take off in less than 1,000 feet. The rpm and manifold pressure gauges indicated we were getting maximum power but the flying boat was accelerating like a cruise ship. At 3,000 feet of runway I was about to call an abort when the nosewheel started to rise.
"Don't let it come up too high!" I barked. I had to yell because the roar of the engine and propeller behind our heads was transmitting through the intercom into our headsets.
The student relaxed some of his back pressure. We rolled along the runway with the nose up for another 1,000 feet. The airspeed indicator advanced like the minute hand on a clock but the main wheels finally lifted off. We were flying.
It was a mistake. The Lake struggled to five feet high and stopped climbing. It hung on the cushion of air between the wings and the ground. The end of the runway flashed by. There was a two-metre-high airport perimeter fence ahead. I reached over and selected the landing gear lever "up". I could visualize the wheels slowly retracting into the wings and the hull. The "gear up" light came on just as we scraped over the fence.
With the wheels up, the Lake gained height a few millimetres at a time. The next hurdle was a line of tall trees on the other side of a cornfield.
"Start a gentle turn to the left," I bellowed. I pointed to the far corner of the field.
Turning would increase our distance to the trees. It would also give me more time to decide if I should take over and belly the flying boat into the corn or let the customer try to fly it over the trees.
Illustration by Francois Bougie
My accomplice on this sudden adventure was Dave Michelin, the owner of the Lake amphibian. He had come to The Flying Circus the day before looking for a seaplane instructor. He had just purchased the Lake and needed dual instruction to satisfy his insurance requirements.
Dave was a big man. He carried his bulk in a wide curve from chin to ankles. He looked and waddled like a whale standing on its tail. His voice had a friendly boom to it. We introduced ourselves.
"And this is Whiskey," Dave said nodding toward an overweight bloodhound that had followed him into our office. The dog was lying down and ignoring us completely.
"Skid Sicamore said you're an experienced float pilot and could check me out on my Lake," Dave announced in his deep voice. "He told me that he arranged coverage with an insurance company."
I knew Sicamore and I was immediately worried. He was an aircraft salesman with a sleazy reputation. Customer satisfaction was not part of Sicamore's operation. He was correct about my float flying experience but I had never flown a Lake before.
"Where's the airplane now, Dave?" I asked.
"Skid's delivering it tonight," he said and then added, "after dark."
I didn't know it at the time but Dave's airplane purchase represented everything that could go wrong when an inexperienced pilot with a dream meets a slippery aircraft broker.
We found out later that Dave's Lake was an early model that had been flogged to death and then put up for sale. The airplane had sat in a field for two years before Dave asked Skid Sicamore to find him a seaplane to fly to his cottage. The broker had the grime washed off the Lake and showed it to Dave. He fancied that it was just what he needed to escape north on the weekends. He bought the airplane without flying it or having a mechanic check it over.
When we met, I had no reason to speculate on Dave's purchase until I saw the airplane. I didn't tell him that I hadn’t flown one. I wanted his business.
Dave seemed to be a likeable guy. He talked easily and laughed a lot. He told me that he worked as a relief dentist.
"I fill-in for dentists who need sick leave or an extended holiday," he said. "That's fill-in, not fillin'," he laughed. "It's a good job. I get more time off than a regular dentist and I don't have to invest in an office or equipment."
While he talked, Dave drew from an endless repertoire of dental office jokes, the ones that don't require a response. It was easy to imagine Dave stuffing a patient's mouth full of cotton and hardware and then cracking a series of one-liners.
"If someone with a multiple personality disorder threatens suicide, is that considered a hostage taking?" he asked.
"I don't know," I answered politely.
"Me either," Dave said with a hearty laugh.
Between jokes, Dave told me that he had learned to fly a long time ago on an air cadet scholarship. He had dreamed of flying a seaplane to his parents' cottage. He said that he had never forgotten the dream but gave up flying to put himself through dentistry. Then he spent the next 10 years paying off school debts, getting married, buying a house and, by my observation, growing jolly and fat.
Dave said that the family cottage was now his so he bought the Lake amphibian to follow his dream. I booked a flight with him first thing the next day.
My fears about Dave's airplane were confirmed in the morning. I arrived to find a Lake parked in the middle of our ramp. It sat dripping fuel and oil from the engine pylon. I should have cancelled the lesson as soon as I saw the aircraft's registration, "C-ADUD".
I tried to look into the cockpit through the crazed, yellowed, dirty windows. The pilot-side gull-wing door was unlocked so I opened it. The interior and instrument panel were in sad shape and out-of-date. I picked up the logbooks from the passenger seat. The only entries for the last two years were both under yesterday's date: Skid's flight and an annual maintenance inspection. I couldn’t read the mechanic's signature.
There was an operating handbook in one of the torn side pockets. I scooped it up, walked to the office and made some coffee. I read the manual until Dave arrived with a box of cream-filled donuts and his bloodhound.
"Tell me," he bellowed through a big grin, "if a turtle loses his shell, is he homeless or naked?"
We poured ourselves coffee and sat down for a briefing. I told Dave what I had learned from the aircraft handbook. His mouth was full of donut most of the time. Occasionally he'd toss one on the floor to Whiskey.
I asked Dave if he had any questions.
"Tell me," he said with a cream-filled grin, "if a man is standing alone with no women around, is he still wrong?"
"Are you going to put Whiskey in your car while we fly?"
"Heck no," Dave laughed. "He goes where I go. If I left him in the car he'd trash it. That's how I lost my Mercedes."
"So you want to take him flying?"
"Sure, he'll be fine."
Dave and I did the pre-flight inspection together. The dentist might have been good at drilling tiny holes in teeth but mechanical or athletic he was not. The concept of standing on the Lake's oil-soaked turtle deck and opening the clamshell engine cowling was too much for him. The fact that he was wearing leather shoes and dress pants didn't help. He giggled and slid his way onto the wing and then hauled himself upright with the engine pylon. I didn't try to help him because I didn't want to be underneath when he fell. When he finally had balanced himself beside the engine, he couldn't figure how to release the latches.
"Now what do I do?" he said.
"Get down and I'll show you," I replied. "There isn't room up there for the two of us."
I completed the walkaround inspection while he watched and cracked jokes.
I didn't need to check the oil to know that it was down. Everything aft of the engine was covered with it. The airplane was also out of gas. I added oil and fuel while Dave cheered me on.
His dog was equally nonathletic. When we were ready to go, Dave gathered him up like a pile of wet laundry, staggered over to the pilot doorsill and dumped him in the back seat.
We climbed into the front. It was a tight fit. The seats were too small for the big dentist. I turned a little sideways to give him more room.
I helped Dave through the checklist. At "engine start", he had to crank it several times before we found the right combination of mixture and power settings that would make it fire.
The Lake's instruments should have been a clue as to how the rest of the airplane would perform. Parked on the ramp with the engine idling, the airspeed indicator read 42 mph. The altimeter showed 560 feet too low when set to the current barometric reading. Since the Circus Airport was at 400 feet above sea level, this put us at an altitude of minus 160. The vertical speed indicator showed a descent that corresponded with the needle hanging straight down. The directional gyro spun left while the compass rotated right. We hadn't moved yet. I turned on the transponder, ADF and VOR receivers. They didn’t light up but the communication radio crackled to life.
I called Circus Ground Control for taxi instructions. We were cleared to Runway 24.
The nose wheel was steered with a spongy pair of brakes on the main wheels. It had a tendency to flop to one side or the other. It was like trying to steer a wheelbarrow along the top of a sewer pipe.
I held the gull-wing door open on my side for fresh air on the way to the runway. Whiskey rested his chin on my right shoulder and sniffed the air. From the smell of his breath, it could have been his other end.
The pre-takeoff check indicated that the engine was working okay. I had been worried about it, knowing Skid's reputation for selling junk. I knew it used oil but I decided that if Skid could make it to Circus without running it dry, then we could do a local flight and make Dave feel like he was an airplane owner.
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