Baffled by the Muffler

Piper Pacer

Piper Pacer

Baffled by the muffler  

As the sun peered out above the horizon, the wheels of my Dad’s 1951 PA-20  (Piper Pacer) spun free of the runway in St. Augustine, Florida. Deep breaths of the fresh ocean air generated a feeling of youthful energy and optimism in me.  Little did we know this day would be anything but ordinary as we set out to ferry home one of my Dad’s latest purchases.

 My 82 year old father had for years bought little airplanes, tinkered with them and flew them before finally finding them a new home, and he loved it!

 Dad learned to fly at age 15 at Smith Field in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His vocation and avocation had been aviation ever since. He loved to fly small airplanes, he loved to work on them and he loved to talk about working on them. 

 As the years progressed, of course, the scales had tipped more in favor of the latter, but even at his advanced age, he wasn’t all talk. He was now in pursuit of his newest obsession, a 1948 PA-12 or Piper Cruiser.  

Piper Cruiser

Dad fully expected to bring home his prize, and I rode along to ferry one of the aircraft home.

Climbing and leveling off at 6500 feet, the sun to our back, and only small puffy clouds in the blue sky, we began our three plus hour trek to western Alabama. 

The outside air temperature was only 51 degrees Fahrenheit, but we were quite comfortable due the heat of the engine and the cozy confines of the small side-by-side cockpit of the Pacer. The Pacer is the four-place, tail-wheel predecessor to the more common Tri-pacer that had its third wheel on the nose. Dad’s Pacer was actually a Tri-Pacer that had been converted to a tail-wheel or what is often referred to as conventional landing gear.

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Piper Pacer with Tri-Pacer in Background

Engulfed in the subtle smell of old leather, we raced the sun westward at 130 mph over the small towns of northern Florida and southern Alabama. After almost three hours of largely forgettable flight, we approached the airport of our destination town. We had been instructed to follow specific directions from the airport to locate the farm where the seller hangared the Cruiser.

 Circling the property, we spotted a plane that looked a lot like a Cruiser sitting in front of a tin covered, three-sided barn on the western side of a large pasture. Having been assured by the owner that the pasture was void of holes, ruts and other surprises, Dad lined up to land on the longest stretch most closely aligned into the wind.

Easing down smoothly onto the soft grass, Dad taxied to the barn and shut down next to what would soon be his new toy. The seller greeted us as we climbed out.

After some casual conversation, my Dad began what turned out to be the two-hour task of inspecting the airplane and its logbooks. When he was satisfied and the negotiation was finalized, we changed the oil in the Cruiser and prepared it for the flight back to Florida.

Our plan was to depart the next morning, so Dad and I chose to fly the Pacer to the local airport for fuel and secure a room for the night. We taxied to the far end of the pasture for takeoff. After completing the BEFORE TAKEOFF checklist, Dad turned into the wind and added full power.

Immediately after beginning our takeoff roll, we both noticed the engine was not producing full power. Dad first checked the carburetor heat which was the most obvious power thief if on, but it was off. We were puzzled and continued to check everything we could think of …as our takeoff roll continued.

At what seemed like half power, we slowly accelerated toward the barbed wire fence at the far end of the pasture. The engine was running smoothly; it just wasn’t producing full power, and the fence was looming larger and larger. 

The farther we went, the more it appeared we were facing a razor-thin margin. Would we obtain flying speed and clear the fence or be just shy of the necessary speed and plow in to the fence? Making the decision to go or abort was solely my Dad’s. It was a judgment call based on more than 20,000 hours of flying experience. Had it been my call, I might have aborted. But I didn’t know the Pacer like Dad did. 

It was clear it was going to be close.  At last, after using all available pasture and approaching surprisingly close to the fence, Dad eased back on the yoke, and the Pacer struggled into the air, clearing the fence by a few feet. I relaxed once we broke ground, and Dad remained focused as he still had trees to negotiate as we continued our stunted climb.

After clawing our way to 1000 feet, we flew to the local airport and landed. After landing we refueled and tied down for the night. Before leaving for the motel, we inspected the Pacer for anything that might contribute to the lack of power. Surprisingly, we found nothing. On the way to the motel, Dad called the seller to ask if he could pick us up in the morning so we could keep the Pacer at the airport where we would enjoy a long runway.  The seller said, “You read my mind. I was concerned watching you leave here today. Thankfully you made it okay, but yes, I will be happy to meet you in the morning and give you a ride.”

The seller met us for breakfast the next morning, and we drove together out to his property. After a thorough pre-flight inspection we said our good-byes, and Dad and I took off from the pasture and flew to the local airport. We fueled the Cruiser and again inspected the Pacer trying unsuccessfully to identify its problem. Not finding anything extraordinary, we decided to fly it home since the engine was running smoothly.

 I took off first in the Pacer. My takeoff roll was unusually long, and by the time I reached the end of the runway, I still was only about 100 feet. Dad was several hundred feet above me.

 Turning toward home I climbed higher than I might have otherwise to give myself more options of places to land should the engine quit. We stayed in close proximity and in contact via the radio.

 After less than an hour, Dad suggested we land in Tuskegee, Alabama for lunch. He must have developed a theory because as soon as we landed and parked, he climbed under the Pacer’s engine and looked up into the exhaust. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed. “The damn baffle has broken off and is blocking the stack.”

 “What?” I asked.

 “Yeah,” he said as he climbed out from under the engine. “The baffle inside the muffler broke loose and is resting on the bottom blocking the exhaust outlet. That’s what is keeping it from generating full power.”

 Finally discovering the cause of the problem brought a sense of relief. Dad quickly removed the muffler and placed it in the back of the Cruiser to be taken home for repair.

 Since we were in Tuskegee, Dad called the commandant of the Tuskegee Institute, a General he had met on some previous occasion. As luck would have it, the General was in and gracious enough to take time for us.  After lunch, the General treated us to a tour and the proud history of the Institute. Returning to the airport, we topped off the fuel tanks of the Cruiser, secured the Pacer, and took off for home. We returned to Tuskegee a few days later with a repaired muffler and then finally got both airplanes back to St. Augustine without further incident or excitement.

 It is said, “All’s well that end’s well.” And in this case, I was reminded that sometimes only experience can teach us what we don’t know. I benefited from my Dad’s experience that led him to the cause of the problem. Now I have that experience to pass on.

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