The road to low and slow.

What was I thinking? It looked simple enough. A forlorn little bush plane sitting ignored in a dusty hangar . . . it practically pleaded with me to take it home. When I chanced to meet the owner cleaning out the hangar one day and got a closer look at the little orphan I was hooked. The feeling was much akin to finding an abandoned puppy. This airplane needed my help. Besides, the price seemed reasonable and I had been bitching about not being “grass current” just about long enough. It certainly appeared that just cleaning the little bird up and checking it out would culminate in me flying happily to the home field and, after just a bit of rejuvenation, I would be fat dumb and happy in the left seat; plying the skies in search of small farm fields and deserted beaches.

Well, like they say, no good deed goes unpunished. I made my deal and I did manage to get the new toy to the “Skunkworks” where all good things happen to wayward airplanes. That was three months ago. And while I have managed to do some laps in the air with “Murph,” the question very rapidly became, “where do I stop?”

We needed a battery before we could even get started so that hurdle was a non-event. After installation we had the long awaited starting of the engine event where upon I discovered that the right side electronic ignition was, A) Intermittent, B) Non-functional, C) A boat anchor, D) All of the above. If you voted D), you win. Rather than chase a problem with a system that had been installed by the previous owner over a decade ago and which may have consumed most of the winter months sorting out the source of the headache, I elected to remove that system altogether and install a good old, tried and true magneto.

Before we could really get into the magneto overhaul however, there were some extra tubing mounts and braces that needed to be dealt with. I soon discovered that these mounts were in the way of nearly everything under the bonnet, therefore, removal with all due haste was needed. After all, it was fall and the leaves had long since left the limbs, snow was coming!

I should explain the tubing mounts at this point. The former owner was an avid reader and so when a detailed article appeared in one of the homebuilt airplane rags extoling the short field virtues of canard equipped aircraft, he simply had to build canards for the Murphy. Never mind that he had an airplane that would take off and land in about 300 feet; shorter was better and damn the cost. This tubing and its assorted weldments and bracing was unceremoniously cut from the engine compartment with the aid of a die grinder. In just moments a perfectly good start to an awesome short field enhancement was so much junk 4130 tubing on the hangar floor.

Tubing removed and magneto installed we got Murphy running and weighed in short order. Weight and balance is a bit on the sketchy side but still theoretically within the envelope. Embellishment may yet be required.  After just a couple of uneventful landings, (the others were so-so) and a few minutes in the pattern, I set out for the Skunkworks on a mostly breezeless fall afternoon. I did not get this old by tempting fate so the less wind the better; my tail dragger skills were covered in rust. Corrosion really.

Once home small things began to plague my sleep time. I saw pictures of auxiliary power ports and additional skin stiffeners. I dreamed about removal of unneeded engine baffling and the removal of cowl vents added along with the canard scheme. There were definitely items to gain control of.

With the electronic ignition gone I found I had an engine instrument cluster that was, A) Intermittent, B) Non- functional, C) A boat anchor, D) All of the above. Again, D) is the only correct answer. It was an old hard to read liquid crystal unit that needed several switches (former owner was an electronics “wizard;” switches on everything) to be moved in order to view the function you wanted to see. After mere seconds of “let’s think about this” I just cut it loose, set it free, and went on a quest for a replacement.

This slow flying, daylight, VFR, airplane with the canard system came with an installed auto pilot of some non-descript make. (Never heard of it) The canard loving prior owner was apparently concerned that long, lonely flights would build fatigue, so the system was added. He also however, seemed concerned that the system might take over the flight of the aircraft unexpectantly at any moment. So a sort of “combination lock” of switches was built into the system. Unless a multitude of switches were activated at the same time, the system would not and could not take over to fly the airplane. Since dementia has begun to erode my ability for stress laden reasoning and logic, I simply could not see myself worrying about the proper configuring and operation of the auto pilot (wing leveler actually) on any of my blistering 100 MPH cross country flights seeking out grass strips and watching deer and turkeys from aloft. In a fit of rational action I took my dykes in hand and cut the connections for the dangerous beast. (Reminds me of “Hal” in 2001 Space Odyssey!) I removed it and resigned it to the growing box of lonely Murphy parts now long past their prime. The vacancy left in the panel by removal of the “Otto” will soon be filled with a new MGL engine instrument cluster!  It was a long way around the barn to get back to engine instruments by way of the auto pilot removal. That’s just the way this airplane rejuvenation stuff works, one thing leads to another.

Let’s talk about encoders shall we? “Murf” was fitted with a multi featured encoder. The unit was a marvel of unnecessary and unwanted functions. It displayed altitude in multiple ways, actual, true, density, and probably more. It also displayed rate of climb or decent. It had an absolute plethora of additional features, most of which confound me, was apparently plumbed into everything and the operations manual was about 72 pages. The last thing an old codger like me needs is something on the instrument panel that gives me more options than there are hours in a day and takes a math degree to program.  To top it all off, the thing fit in and standard 3 1/8” instrument hole and was a liquid crystal display (quite sure those were in use on the Santa Maria when Columbus crashed in to North America.) I wear bi-focals; teeny-tiny liquid crystal displays are not something I can see too well. What I needed in the now empty space where this unit used to set was an old fashion VSI. Large display; moving needle; up or down and how fast. Sometimes simpler is just better.

Removal of the existing encoder created another dilemma. If this unit was gone (and it is) I would need to add an encoder to my transponder bag of tricks. Again, something simple that plugs into my KT76A and tells those guys in the glass houses how tall I am. Problem was solved with an ACK 30.5 blind encoder. No panel space required for this unit! That’s good because the hole where that multi-functional boat anchor used to set is now holding a good old fashioned VSI!

A couple days have now been spent building a mount for my Garmin Aera which will become my primary navigation (other than roads and rivers and such. Remember those days?) Oh, did I forget to say? The hole where that Garmin is going to set was filled with an Apollo GPS 360 which was A) Outdated, B) Intermittent, C) Not . . . . . well you get it. Also worth mentioning is that the Apollo unit too was a liquid crystal display. They were something back in the 90’s weren’t they? Columbus probably had one of these too, he would have had ample time to program it while he crossed the Atlantic.

So on I go, slowly, methodically, updating removing, replacing and steadily adding to the box of disused and unwanted antique gear. I have a cowling to overhaul yet and once that is done the engine baffling needs to be rearranged to match it. I can see the end of the overhaul or metamorphosis or rebirth or whatever you wish to call it, from here. I’m just not so sure I won’t find another surprise along the way before I get there. The building and modifications may go on for a while yet and I guess that is really what this is all about. It’s a chance for an old pilot to keep his head in the game. It’s my chance to return to where I came from; low and slow, on the grass.

Blue skies and tailwinds,

Capt. “T”

P.S. You can view our videos on Youtube at the “Tango Sierra” Channel.


Tom Speerstra

Author: Tom Speerstra

Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and Pappy “the dog” Boyington.