I was so excited to put the plane on wheels. It was going to be a mechanical adventure with the new steed. A chance to learn how to best take care of her and a chance to get her ready for another chapter of life as an Alaska Bush Plane. I sold my four-wheeler to pay for a big bush wheel nose fork that I was told I could not fly without.
When the Landis nose fork arrived in Homer, the UPS man called me on my cell phone (I think when you live in a small town, the guys in brown have everyone’s cell phone number), “Steph, we’ve got something really expensive for you and don’t want to leave it anywhere you aren’t.” Usually they just drop stuff inside the garage or on the step at my work, but apparently UPS stickers boxes that cost more than people could really afford to pay.
After doing an excited inventory of my pricey delivery, I ran inside to pick out my best work clothes for the big project. Seriously? Like I am on the way to my first day of kindergarten? Well, just short of my mom braiding ribbons into my hair, that’s how I was acting. I chose faded Levis speckled with paint, a long sleeved t-shirt, a hoody splashed with the name of some sports team I’m on, and then stuffed a handkerchief in my pocket for good measure. A pair of gloves and rubber boots and I was ready for work.
I called the highly-recommended mechanic that I would assist with the gear change, and he was eating an omelet. He’d be ready in an hour “or so.”
I was anxiously waiting at the airport when he pulled up. Bob is his name, he’s probably in his late sixties, has a slight lisp, and has done gear changes on approximately one million planes since he became an A&P mechanic, which chronologically speaking was, “long before you had heard of Alaska, or had even been born, Missy.” Bob estimated the floats-to-wheels transition would take us five hours, once we got the plane out of the water. Bob works on an hourly rate.
So, first step… get the plane out of Beluga Lake. We tried to hook up Mark’s trailer, only to find the hitch rusted beyond release. Bob knew where another float trailer was located, and we appropriated it under the “Ask Forgiveness, not Permission Act.”
Bob instructed me to back the trailer into the lake, but grew quickly frustrated with my backing skills, or lack thereof. To his credit, last time I drove someone else’s trailer, I jackknifed it into that someone else’s truck. Bob and I switched spots and I ran down the road to get the plane.
I unlashed the lines from the dock and started Beryl up. As I taxied her down the lake for the last time this year, I resisted the temptation to take one last lap around the pattern, in my excitement to get to the project at hand, and because I figured Bob probably backed up trailers faster than I and had made it down the ramp before I even got in the plane.
Engine killed, I bumped the floats against the deck of the trailer and hopped out.
We stood in the water and muscled the aircraft back and forth to get her centered on the trailer, knowing that balance would be very important to keep her there on the drive over to the airport. The water felt like freeze up was only days away, even through my boots. I emptied the floats of all the lines I keep stored there and we tied one to every possible point. I was trained in the “if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot” school of knot tying, and probably got close to twenty knots in on my side of the aircraft alone.
“Are we ready to take her up the hill?” Bob asked. I looked at the steep bank between trees that was our path out of the lake and tied ten more knots.
Bob told me that he had never pulled a plane with wing extensions like Beryl has out of the lake. It might be tight. We started up the hill and I ran back and forth in front of the truck, pointing excitedly back and forth, directing him to dodge the wingtips around trees.
With my Subaru as the flag car, I pulled out into the road to stop any lakeshore traffic. We got the plane around the corner and found that large pine branches blocked the right wingtip. I climbed up the first pine tree, rubber boots kicking for purchase on the sappy truck and lunged for the offending branch. Swinging from the branch, my weight held the limb just low enough for the wing to pass by. I dropped to the ground and ran to the next tree. In this way, we made it up to FAA drive, the road to the airport.
The Dept of Transportation provided an escort for our merry parade to cross the runway and we parked the 206 in a red hanger on the south side of the field to get to work. My feet were still frozen from their time in the lake, but I was still thrilled: it was noon; in five hours I would have a plane on wheels to cruise around until spring.
We lashed Beryl to a chain hoist and raised her off the trailer, and then we set to work on the bolts that lashed on the floats. The floats hadn’t come off since the previous owner purchased them in 2006. Everything was really stiff. But two set of hands helped. I could just mimic what Bob was doing on the opposite side of the aircraft. One dry bolt held in place despite all our efforts though. No matter how we changed the gravity and weight of the plane, we couldn’t get the final lynchpin loose. So, at three o’clock we broke for lunch.
Hours later, the bolt was still stuck. Greasing, bashing, wing-rocking, and pleading used up, Bob drew out his secret weapon: cursing and throwing stuff. It worked. At seven PM, the floats were freed from the fuselage. I was freezing in the unheated hangar. Bob said we would finish up tomorrow morning.
I thought back to my days at Liberty Creek on my drive home: “Every project takes three times as long and costs twice as much as estimated.” I had a couple more days of work in the cold hangar ahead. So, I recalled another Liberty Creek lesson: “Always dress like you have to walk out.”
On day two, I wore wool, which “Keeps you warm and dry, even when you’re cold and wet”(another liberty creek lesson). I managed to stay warm all morning. I learned some lessons about Bob. He works really slowly. He works even slower if you talk to him. So, in silence, I did my best as a mechanic’s helper. I usually was working too fast to stay continuously useful, and would use my waiting-for-Bob time to clean the airplane. When someone would wander down to the hangar to see what was going on, as people at airports do, Bob would stop working to talk to them. I would give them mean looks until they left or at least backed up out of earshot.
It wasn’t too hard to get the main gear in place (that’s the left and right tires). We bolted them in, checked the tension and moved to the real project: the nose gear.
My silent treatment policy didn’t work perfectly on Bob. While we were muscling the nose gear into place, he asked me: “Are you married?” No “Have a boyfriend?” No. “Kids?” No. “Ever been married?” No. He looked at me hopefully, “Any pets?” Still no. The hope turned to pity: “How old are you? 30? 32?” 31. Then Bob delivered his sage advice: “You only have about eight good years left.” He paused, looked at the nose gear, then back at me: “I have a pug you can have if you want.”
After offering me a small, ugly dog to solve my social life, Bob realized that we needed a machine shop to switch out the shaft for the new expensive nose fork. This observation easily could have been made two days ago, but the other lesson I learned about Bob is that he doesn’t consider a problem until he is upon it. I headed to Homer’s single machine shop before it closed and Bob began packing up his tools. Somehow the sun had snuck through the southern sky and we still had one whole wheel assembly to go. I was freezing cold.
On day three, I wore more wool, and long underwear, and flannel-lined Carhartts. I could hardly put my arms down as I waddled into the hangar and shimmied back under the plane. I worked all the tubes into the tires with the aide of baby powder, after Bob made a point of showing me, the old maid, how to use baby powder. I had all the tires together before the nose gear assembly was completed at the machine shop. Bob still didn’t have the float brackets freed from where the nose gear needed to attach.
I refused to break for lunch; foolishly believing the end was in sight. When Bob put the wrong bracket up into the nose gear assembly first, and the whole thing became more tightly locked up than that float bolt on day one, I said, “I’ve gotta be somewhere at six-thirty.” He looked at me accusingly, “Well, if you have to leave, we are never going to get this done today.” It was six o’clock. Bob never works past the sun. We had one hour to overcome the trickiest Rubik’s cube we had seen all week. “We’re not going to finish today Bob even if some pixies show up and magically unstick the nose gear. I’ll see you in the morning.” I left for evening Nordic ski practice, only mildly chilled. The only obvious progress made all day was that the tires were inflated to their appropriate pressures.
Before I bundled up for Day Four, I cancelled a weekend trip to Tok, knowing that I couldn’t count on having the plane ready to go by tomorrow morning. I had already had to cancel a trip to Egegik on Day Three, because I had only allotted one extra day for getting this project done. Pity, as the weather all week was clear and beautiful.
Bob must have taken his time on his omelet because he figured we had so little left to do, there was no reason to get an early start. I was hovering at the hangar at eleven, waiting for this master mechanic to do his thing. He started swearing and throwing and eventually, he had the piece he had accidentally jammed into the nose gear assembly removed. It was afternoon. We put together the nose wheel again, this time in the correct order, pumped the strut full of hydraulic fluid, and began reassembling the aircraft.
My cousin, Solveig, drove down from Anchorage at 4pm. I figured this would be a sign to Bob that we needed to hurry and finish up. Stupid me. It was a chance to talk. We finished the test flight after 6pm. I was glad to see that I remembered how to land a wheel plane, as that is an important part of each flight.
When we pushed Beryl into the hangar, she looked great on her new wheels. I still had to find a water source to finish her end-of-the-season cleaning. But, luckily, I know the guy that runs the airport fire truck.
Bob had worked his presto-chango ‘millionth’ float change in a mere TWENTY-SEVEN hours. And that’s not counting paperwork. He gets to log the hours he spends signing off the weight and balance as well. I guess the Liberty Creek time/cost formula doesn’t work on airplanes. But at the end of day four, I was still warm. It only took four days for me to re-learn to dress for outdoor work in Alaska.