“The 4WD Buick”

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“The 4-WD Buick” (November 2002)

So my experience with the Piper Archer has been pretty tame for the most part. Being the Buick of light planes, the Archer is able to scoot around at about 150 mph, and is expected to typically be given a few thousand feet of paved runway to do it’s job. It carries four people, and in fact when X-Plane was started it was called “Archer-II IFR”, designed to simulate strictly the Piper Archer.

I have maybe 40 or 50 hours in the plane, tooling around Southern California, landing in little paved strips in the middle of the desert… things like that. With a decent acceleration and climb and speed and range it is a nice little 4-seater with a nice solid feel. I would never expect to use it for “off-road” flying though… even taking off and landing from a well-groomed grass strip would entail caution for the moderately high takeoff and landing speeds of this plane.

Thus, it was with some trepidation that I found myself in the right seat of one with a bush pilot in the left flying into the steeply-sloping side of a mountain in France on purpose.

So here is how it happened: Yvves Cuttat (French X-Plane customer, glider pilot, and basement aerodynamicist) and Daniel Leygnat (X-Plane enthusiast and contributor extraordinaire) had arranged a flight with him, myself, and a professional pilot to tour the South France area in an Archer complete with a landing in the mountains to demonstrate the mountain-flying side of aviation with which I am not familiar. We all piled into the plane at a nice normal paved strip and away we went. This was all normal, but soon we got into the mountainous areas of the country and things started getting interesting… our host would fly the plane perhaps 100 feet over the crest of a mountain, resulting in trees whipping by right underneath us at truly impressive and scary speeds… and then as we crossed the peak the mountain would fall away from us, leaving nothing but empty space for a mile beneath us! Then we would dive down between mountains, with peaks rising above us on either side as we raced through the valleys, the trees really not far off one wing or another! Once you get used to the idea of being off course as meaning nothing more than that you will take a while longer to get where you are going, it is quite an eye-opener to see that being off course could put you underground! Particularly when traveling at 150 mph, where being underground would not be fortuitous.

Soon our host pointed out a bare section of a mountainside leading up to the peak of one of the higher mountains. This was to be our “runway”. There was no pavement, only grass and gravel, and it sloped up the side of the mountain at about 20 degrees! it was maybe 75 feet wide and 800 feet long. It was not even flat, the slope on the first half of the strip being different then the second half. We began to circle the “runway” to make our “traffic” pattern and I was confronted with an unusual sight: trees and terrain passing rapidly right beneath us on downwind leg. It is the nature of mountain flying that with all the peaks and valleys that while your altitude in the pattern might be pretty constant, the terrain is always rising up to smite you or disappearing far beneath you as scoot across the skyscape. We had trees whistling just under our belly at 150 mph on downwind, falling away beneath us until we were well over 1000 feet up on final!

Our “final approach” to the strip was actually a perfectly LEVEL flight! Coming DOWN to a patch of Earth that sloped steeply UP would be nothing but a collision. The approach had the appearance of a CFIT accident (Controlled Flight Into Terrain accident, a type where a guy unwittingly flies into a mountain in the fog or clouds, not knowing the the mountain peak in front of him is higher than he is… this accident scenario is always fatal.. the Far Side cartoon of this scenario has some pilots in the cockpit of an airplane in the clouds, with a mountain goat sort of visible through a little break in he clouds staring at them wide-eyed through the cockpit windscreen, and one pilot is saying to the other “Say, what’s a mountain goat doing way up here in the clouds?”. Famous last words.) Anyway, our approach was a level flight at 70 knots with full flaps into the rising side of a mountain, and looked like a CFIT accident in the making. I could tell that if we hit the mountainside at this speed then the destruction of the airplane was certain. But not to worry! At the last minute, the pilot applied FULL POWER AND RAISED THE NOSE SHARPLY! The plane entered a sharp climb… but NOT QUITE AS SHARP AS THE MOUNTAIN SLOPE, so the contact with the terrain was firm but certainly within normal limits for a landing. We bounced and bucked and bronced along the rising terrain, having to add a lot of power at the end to even make it up to the top of the strip. We got out and took a look around in the cool mountain air. We were up at maybe 8,000 feet on a mountain peak looking out over the mountains extending for a hundred miles in every direction, and there was no other civilization visible anywhere. We trooped down the patch of grass to see where we had touched down, and just walking up and down such a steep hill was awkward. After a while, we tumbled into the plane to leave.

Now Archers have no less than TWO problems getting started, both of which I have encountered routinely.

1: The starter has a “centrifugal clutch”, which means that the starter does not engage the engine until it is spinning. The problem is, sometimes this clutch does not engage even when it should, and the result is a spinning, whirring noise when you hit the starter as the starter motor spins furiously… with no motion of the propeller at all, and thus no starting of the engine.

2: Even if you get the starter to engage, the engine used in the plane is VERY finicky about the fuel/air ratio it needs to start, and they are NOTORIOUSLY known for simply not catching to life as you crank the starter, leaving you to fiddle with the mixture, throttle, and fuel pump in a random dance of trying to get enough fuel to the engine to start it without flooding it, which will also prevent a start. It is not uncommon to see an Archer pilot holding one hand on the starter, furiously working the throttle up and down, and wishing for a third and fourth to toggle the mixture and fuel pump, all while the prop is sluggishly turning under the starter and refusing to bark to life.

So, on the top of this mountain on a patch of grass in the South France with not another person visible for miles, I had some reservations about the engine getting started.

Sure enough, our pilot hit the starter and got nothing back but the familiar useless “WHIRRRRRrrrrrr” from under the cowl and not a bit of motion from the prop. He tried it about 4 more times and got the same thing. The fifth time was a charm, though, and the starter caught and the prop sluggishly turned! But the engine simply would not catch. Now our pilot began doing the “Archer dance of the throttle and mixture” until eventually, after 2 or 3 tries, he finally hit on the right mixture and the engine roared to life again!

Now it was time to take off, and while we normally look for a given WIND DIRECTION to decide in which direction to use on the runway, when the slope of the runway is so steep you cannot do more than barely manage to lumber up it at full power, there is only one way to take off: DOWN the hill. So we pointed down the hill just exactly like some guy doing a long ski jump, applied full power, and went galloping down the bumpy clearing. The suspension of the Archer got a heck of a workout as we bounced and bumped down the hill… soon enough though we had our 70 knots or so and up we went, departing company with the descending hill and barely clearing the trees at the far end of the strip.

The pilot asked if I wanted to fly back to the main airport and I said sure, and did it the way I always fly Archers: High up and in a straight line.

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