Escape From Richter Lake
but Not Out.
Shooting by Connecting the Dots!
flying a piston DeHavilland Beaver on floats in Northern Ontario Canada
doing outpost camp rounds. You know: drop off beer, mixed boat gas, 100
“pounders” of propane, and a PR note advertising the promised visit
(often scrawled on the bent over underside cardboard flap of a two-four.)
The fishing parties were usually out fishing so I’d often graze a few
handfuls of junk food prior to hauling garbage and empty propane cylinders
down to the dock.
Landing in a channel at camp two of a
planned six, I catch a brief whiff of something like sulfur as I pitch up
coming off the step. “Strange”, I thinks, “must be garbage in the
back or I’m really due for a scrub this week…new odors and all.” A
brief look around and a few more sniffs left me shrugging my shoulders
prior to pulling the mixture and gliding in to dock.
I did my bit at the camp and took off
normally to the next camp where I did my custodial routine again while
everybody was out fishing. Untie, push the nose out, clamber in, one
stroke of the primer by the door-sill, master on and lift the adjacent
starter toggle switch. Nothing…dead…not even a lethargic bounce
against the next compression stroke was revealed by the visible blade.
‘Oh oh’ I mutter. Master off, I hop out, leap from the float, heal
back to the dock, and grab the tail to pull’er back in and tie'er up.
I’m stranded at camp three of six
and no one knows exactly where I am. Imitating one of the cartoon
superhero’s about to get crushed, boiled or zapped by Dr. Evil, I say to
myself in a strained staccato: “Got To Think What To Do.” There IS
time to think it through…and snacks up in that cabin...although the
inevitable overnight wait for rescue holed up in close quarters with six
messy American men on their annual male bonding pig-a-thon didn’t turn
my crank either.
Although I’ve seen it done, I’m
too scrawny to hand bomb the 9 cylinder Pratt
and I wouldn’t want a customer to try either. This ain’t no
65Hp Champ. Wanting to use the aircraft radio to possibly call another
airplane with a message, I climb back in. Before blabbing away, first I
figure I’d better trouble shoot as best I can so as to avoid
embarrassment because a circuit breaker popped or something obvious like
that, and possibly relay something useful like, ‘bring jumper cables and
To this point there had been no
peculiarity to the starter motor. In recent days all cranking had been
vigorous. I know sometimes the starter will be needing a little coaxing
into action and/or be weak in it’s final days. Master on to check the
voltage. Well, an MNR moose counter had wrapped the gage with his knuckle
last winter and the glass broke pinning the needle. So not much
information on the gauge. The radio LED’s lit so some voltage was
available and the master solenoid must be engaging. Listen for the click
of the starter solenoid, separate from the click of the starter switch. I
don’t hear it. It might be stuck open but more likely a voltage deficit.
With a dime I unfastened the Dzus fasteners
to the engine accessory side panel to take a look see. (A reverent moment
of appreciation to the people who designed such utility into the Beaver
design please). I touch the small pink Gill battery to detect any warmth
but then I recall that thermal runaway is more a nicad thing and this is
lead-acid. All cables to the starter look good and feel secure. I give the
two silver solenoid canisters a wrap with pliers for what it’s worth. My
nose up beside the starter detects nothing resembling a burnt smell. Next
easy thing was to unscrew the butterfly nuts to the battery box lid, don
glasses and carefully take a battery cap off and look in.
Ah ha! No visible electrolyte in that
dark hole. I dip it with a twig, which came up showing only an inch of
fluid. I know electrolyte fluid is what magically does something with lead
plates to make electricity. I remember that it can boil out and down the
battery box drain to the belly when supplied too much charging voltage
from the alternator (Original Beavers had a generator and a larger battery
behind the baggage area). I looked under and saw nothing unusual but
splashed water around anyway in case the acid was eating at a critical
bolt or the paint.
Then I thinks back to the smell and
start to connect the dots. Check the voltage regulator above the right
seat foot well. With a twist to a screw, it conveniently swings down in a
hinged tray. (Bow heads for another moment of praise please). Immediately
I see that a big old ceramic resister is burnt. This puzzle is starting to
make sense. Like many a married man, it just gave up resisting.
This allowed the alternator to run
unchecked and deliver god knows what high voltage to the battery. Come to
think of it, the LED’s on the COMM were running pretty bright on that
last leg. Hope the radio didn’t fry. That high nose attitude coming off
the step back at camp two introduced a little stir of air in the foot well
from the float strut fittings or the doors, bringing that brief puff of
smoke to recognition.
So now I know what the problem is, but
I don’t know what to do. As luck would have it, the fisherman had a 12V
truck battery on the dock to run their trolling motor. With no jumper
cables in sight I retreat to the cabin for a junk food snack and to think.
While grazing on an assortment of chips and cheezies to conceal my
pilferage, I realize this truck battery is my only hope of getting out of
here today. The aircraft radio was probably too weak to transmit without
jumper cables as well.
After looking around for wire I came
up with another idea. Back to the dock carrying a big plastic pail used
for fish guts, a small teapot, and a funnel, and pour three segments of the very heavy truck battery into a
fish guts bucket, which luckily didn’t melt. Pour that bucket of acid
into the teapot and that into the Gill via the funnel. It took awhile, but
I topped the Gill back up. I wrote an amendment to the PR note telling
them their battery was now unserviceable and went for a second try. This
time she cranked with vigor and started on the fourth or fifth blade. Not
wanting to boil the battery again I turned the master off immediately and
proceeded back to base nordo in a self-congratulatory mood at having
escaped a needless search and a crowded night at Richter Lake outpost
A phone call to Winnipeg produced a
new regulator two days later but we continued to operate in the mean time
with the same "master on to start", then "off to run" manner. I carried a hand held
radio and an emergency back-up battery and cables since a charged battery
was only good for about four or five progressively weaker starts before it
had to be removed to visit the charger.
Most bush planes are fairly simple and
you don’t have to be a mechanic to do some basic troubleshooting when
things malfunction. During inspection hang around a while and ask what is
what and learn some of the lingo. Basic and descriptive terms like spline,
fiber-nut, inter-cylinder drain, valve keeper, actuator, etc. are sure to
gain you a modicum of begrudging respect with those so indoctrinated. Good
pilots have basic understanding of their airplanes and when some system or
avionics go awry, while not able or legally allowed to fuss with it, they
can troubleshoot, and thereby log and describe snags with greater
If you tell me you have hand cranked an
Otter you are either lying or your name is Arnold.
The margin tile was made from a
image of a wooden prop on a SE-5A
WW1 bi-plane. They hand bombed those
babies every flight.
Note from PropThrust. The first OCA Beaver I flew still had the inertial
hand-crank starter installed. We tried it once just for the fun of it. It
worked great. With modern batteries like the very reliable pink
power Gill, however, the added weight became a luxury and the inertial
starter had to go. More freight more revenue.
By the way, hand cranking the Beaver is
possible but I would not recommend it unless you have long arms and a
hairy back. And make sure the big radial is stone cold. If you can get it
to go through one compression stroke it will fire. Oh yeah, don't forget
to be tied to the dock. The good thing about hand bombing a floatplane is
that it can't leave without you. Just make sure you have the nimbleness of
a wolverine as you will have to get back down the starboard (right) float
into the cabin fighting the prop blast. Otherwise, just do the smart thing
and connect the dots.
Oh, and one more point. You don't need battery
acid to refresh a dried battery. You can just use clean water.
Use the attitude indicator as your guide back to PropThrust.
Top of this story.
Editor John S Goulet
Last modified on
March 05, 2006 .
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.