They appear soft and fluffy, like a dandelion in full bloom, its white orb of seeds anxious to launch with any breath of wind. It’s a treacherous and deceptive quality; how something so alluring as the fuzzy and harmless-looking cholla (choy-ah) cactus, can bequeath so much grief. The Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida), therefore, provides a fine metaphor for things to which we are enticed, that get under our skin and, like the sirens of Ancient Greek mythology, have glamour and a mystical allure – and perhaps an anthropomorphic agenda, not apparent to the casual neophyte. Yes, we are pirouetting around the trials and tribulations of aircraft ownership. Like the rocky shores of the siren’s island, the underlying attributes of ownership are, sometimes, not so pleasurable.
The cholla plant has pads that separate from the main stem. A common false theory is that static electricity in the arid desert is so intense that the fluffy spines are electro-magnetically attracted to objects. Unlike other varieties of cacti with solid spines, cholla’s have hollow spines which makes them extremely light, and it’s this fact that allows them to easily attach to clothing, skin, shoes or whatever they touch with their needle-like sharpness. So easily, in fact, they seem to “jump” at you – hence the name “jumping” cholla. Since the plant is covered with spines, it’s difficult to grab and remove the pad from your skin. If there is moisture, such as in your skin, the tips curve once in contact, locking the spines just below the surface.
Into The Crash
In Ancient Greek mythology, sirens were dangerous yet beautiful creatures who lured passing sailors with their enchanting music and voices, only to shipwreck on the nearby rocky coast of their island. It seems our modern brains remain susceptible to the siren virus. Once you have an encounter with aviation, like the cholla, you are hooked. It can become an obsession, or at least a life-long pursuit of happiness. The hollow spines of the Cylindropuntia Aeróplanos jump at you and they are pretty much impossible to remove. And, once stuck with spines of the flying bug (that will be the only mixed metaphor, I promise), most of us seem inclined to remain involved with aviation and airplanes until our strength or money is exhausted – occasionally driven to the rocky shores of bankruptcy or divorce. It’s in our pilot-genes, after all, to fix things – to maintain aircraft control until the very end, as said by aviation legend Bob Hoover: “Fly the airplane as far into the crash as possible.” It can be a slippery slope as time and assets are drained in the process of retaining ownership of a flying machine.
The repairs and improvements we choose for our planes may provide a safety enhancement, an increase in efficiency or simply a desired aesthetic effect. All of us have a list of must-have and like-to-have work: the Duke could use a prop overhaul, new boots and a fresh interior. Other owners may need more urgent work – leaking fuel bladders, hot section inspections, overhauls or a new cylinder or three. But even a simple set of new tires, brakes pads and strut adjustments can cost thousands of hard-to-find dollars. When you add the cost of recurrent training, insurance, registration, GPS updates, loan payments and hangar rent, it can seem like death by a thousand paper cuts (oops, one more mixed metaphor). And some of the paper cuts, whether self-inflicted or imposed by regulators and insurance companies, often add tincture of iodine to the wound.
Too young to know what tincture of iodine is? Before the days of topical medications for the epidermis that cause no pain during application (mom would say that if it didn’t sting, it wasn’t working), there was tincture of iodine; picture rubbing alcohol applied to an open rash or sunburn. Sometimes, the expensive paper cuts of aircraft ownership are not our fault or that of the machine. Sometimes they are put upon us by regulators eyeing the big picture (iodine), engineers solving errors and inadequacies (more iodine), and failures of components or materials (still more iodine). But, sometimes, we ourselves choose technological and aesthetic “improvements” that are simply too good to pass up (Bactine or Neosporin).
A few years ago, all Duke engines (TIO-541-E1C4’s) were having a problem with camshaft/lifter scaling. The theorized reasons for this condition ranged from bad steel to bad oil to inadequate lubrication. One of the first solutions was an additive to the engine oil (it’s in Aeroshell 100 plus – LW16702), next was a camshaft that was alleged to be better lubricated. Another was a bigger oil filter and still another was more frequent oil changes. Finally, the problem seems to have been solved by an engineer who designed lifters in which the ends are made of carbide. So far, this seems to have worked great. There are always other issues though – like the cracked engine case I had a couple years ago (lots of iodine).
It’s been demonstrated many times that knowledge and experience will increase the likelihood of successfully dealing with an in-flight emergency, thusly lessening the danger, grief and expense of the event. The same is true of aircraft maintenance technicians and engineers – knowledge and experience can lessen down-time, bloody knuckles, frustration and your bill. I concede that money can fix most issues related to our airplanes, and having some extra lying-around money is a good thing.
I was talking to a King Air pilot at Oshkosh about ADS-B. It wasn’t his plane but he was in charge of its operation, including the upcoming mandate. His avionics shop was having quite the time trying to come up with an ADS-B solution for the plane. I wondered how this could be: plenty of expensive and magical avionics already installed and, apparently, an owner with liquidity (i.e., some lying-around money) for completing the conversion. Here’s the rub: none of the options available would interface with his existing suite of magic avionics. It would mean replacing many, many thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff in order to install ADS-B. Apparently, money can’t solve everything – unless it’s a briefcase full of it.
Try to not let the fluffy dandelion seeds of aircraft ownership get you down – they will just contaminate your yard even more next spring. Besides, you never know, they may be a jumping cholla in disguise. Why are there so many metaphors in this column anyway? Why am I asking you? And what’s the point of all this metaphoric talk about cholla, sirens, paper cuts, iodine, airplane addiction, flying the plane as far into the crash as possible, and staying in the game until the very end? I receive mail from readers who struggle to fly their airplane as often as they would like. Some tell me thanks because they are relegated to living the flying dream vicariously through our stories and those in other magazines. So, it’s not to make light of the struggles we go through in order to keep our planes – but perhaps to make a humorous po int that you are far from alone in your anxiety over the occasional, even constant, analysis of the cost/benefit relationship of aviation and aircraft ownership. Your frustration when the lying-around money isn’t lying around is shared by many.
Consider this commonly spoken axiom on the subject of ownership: don’t try to justify owning an airplane. It’s the Nike anti-thesis, Just Don’t Do It. If your BOD, CFO, CPA or spouse insists on a logical analysis to justify the time and expense of your plane, do your best to describe the efficiencies and joys of ownership. If your argument is thin or your resolve weak, you may be pinned, your rear full of cholla. If needed, you can borrow my justification at no charge or cholla: Life is short. And for now, I can afford the plane; and since I really like to fly – I am going to fly. Someone has to take good care of all the airplanes of the world. It’s my duty to help with at least one. You can quote me on that.