Thorough Preflight

Piper Pacer

Piper Pacer

As the sun peered out above the Atlantic Ocean, the wheels of my Dad’s 1951 PA-20  (Piper Pacer) spun free of the runway in St. Augustine, Florida.  

Deep breaths of fresh ocean air generated in me a feeling of youthful energy and optimism. This was the first time in a month the Pacer had flown, so we conducted a thorough preflight under the lights in the hangar before rolling her out onto the predawn ramp to begin our trip. Little did we know this day would be anything but ordinary as we set out to ferry home one of my Dad’s latest desires.  

For years, my 82 year-old father 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. From that day forward, aviation became his vocation, his avocation, and his passion. He loved to fly small airplanes, he loved to work on them and he especially loved talking about working on them. As the years progressed the scales had tipped more to 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.  


The Cruiser is a fabric covered tail-wheel aircraft with tandem (front and rear) seating. It was originally designed and advertised as a three-seater, a claim that was a bit of an exaggeration even in 1947.  

Dad fully expected to conclude the sale and bring home his prize, so I rode along to ferry one of the aircraft backto Florida.

We climbed into the sky with the morning sunand leveled off at 6500 feet. Small puffy clouds dotted the royal blue sky as we began our three plus hour trek to western Alabama. The outside air temperature was only 51 degrees, but we were quite comfortable due to 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, converted to a tail-wheel or what is often referred to as conventional landing gear.

Pacer with Tri-pacer in background

Pacer with Tri-pacer in background

Side-note: Both aircraft had a rear door on the left side which the Cuban’s removed to install a .30 caliber machine gun for use against insurgents, along with hand-dropped grenades. A Tri-Pacer providing ground support for the Cuban Army during the Battle of Guisa is believed to be the lone aircraft lost by the FAEC (Fuerza Aérea Ejército deCuba)to enemy fire. Wikipedia

Engulfed in the subtle smell of old leather, we raced the sun westward at 130 mph, sliding past the small towns of northern Florida and southern Alabama. In time, we approached the airport of our destination town. We followed the given directions from the airport and located the farm where the seller kept the Cruiser.

Circling the property we spotted an airplanesitting in front of a tin-covered, three-sided barn on the western edgeof a large pasture. Having been assured by the owner that the pasture was free 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.

After some casual conversation with the seller, my Dad began the two-hour task of inspecting the airplane and its logbooks. When he was satisfied and the negotiations were concluded, 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.  After a cursory preflight, we cranked up and 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. 

As our takeoff roll started, we both noticed the engine was not producing full power. Dad first checked the carburetor heat which was the most likely power thief, but it was off. We were puzzled and continued to check everything we could think of as the Pacer bounced along the ever-decreasing runway.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 obstacle was looming larger and larger. 

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 into it? Dad was flying so it was his call to go or abort. Had I been flying I might have aborted, but I didn’t know the Pacer nearly as well as my Dad. It was his call based on thousands of hours of experience and a couple hundred in the Pacer. It was clear it was going to be close. After using nearly all available pasture 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, but Dad remained focused. 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 without incident. We taxied to the parking area, 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 to take advantage of the longer runway.  The seller said, “You read my mind. I was concerned watching you leave here today. Thankfully you made it okay.”

He met us for breakfast the next morning, and we drove together to the farm, still thinking about the puzzle, still tied down at the airport. After a thorough pre-flight inspection,Dad and I took off from the pasture and flew back to town. After fueling we 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 departed first in the Pacer. My takeoff roll was unusually long, and by the time I reached the end of the runway, I was only about 100 feet. Dad took off after I did, and quickly climbed above me. Turning toward home I slowly climbed to an altitude higher than I would have normally to give myself more options of places to land should the engine quit. Dad and I stayed in close proximity and in radio contact. 

After less than an hour, Dad suggested we land in Tuskegee, Alabama for lunch. I knew that the Pacer’s misbehavior was on his mind, because as soon as we shut down, he got out, climbed under the Pacer’s engine and looked up into the exhaust stack. 

“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 has broken loose and is resting on the bottom of the muffler blocking the stack. That’s what is keeping it from generating full power.” 

The muffler is a cylinder about eight inches in diameter and 15 inches long. Welded inside is a smaller cylinder, the baffle, that is perforated all around the circumference. The exhaust gases flow into the baffle and are diffused through the perforations, finally exiting out of the muffler through the exhaust stack. 

The weld holding the baffle had broken allowing it to fall and rest on the bottom of the muffler covering the outlet, where the exhaust gases exit. With the exit blocked, the exhaust gases couldn’t flow creating back pressure which limited the engine’s RPM. 

Finally discovering the cause of the problem brought a sense of relief. The muffler was quickly removed and placed 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 an earlier adventure. As luck would have it, the General was in and gracious enough to take time for us.  After lunch, we were treated to a VIP tour and the proud history of the Institute.  

Back at the airport, we topped off the fuel tanks of the Cruiser, secured the Pacer, and took off for home.  

A few days later, we were back with a repaired muffler and then finally got both airplanes home to St. Augustine without further incident or excitement. 

As I think back to this experience, it’s a reminder that we are always learning.  Sometimes only experience can teach us what we don’t know. My Dad’s many hours around airplanes helped him think through every minute component that could have contributed to the Pacer’s problem. Watching him patiently process what we saw and experienced, both during our pre-flight inspections and in the air, helped me appreciate that safety in the air is a combination of experience, observation and vigilance.  

It’s worth mentioning that the baffle came loose on the flight to Alabama but went unnoticed due to the reduced power settings of descent and landing. How often have we skipped the preflight on the second leg because “we just flew in and it was fine?” 

Will this experience inspire me to do a thorough preflight prior to all flights in the future?  

Absolutely. And, I’ll even look up the tailpipe.

This article is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Plane & Pilot Magazine.

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