Escape From Richter Lake Outpost Camp

Down but Not Out.

Trouble Shooting by Connecting the Dots!

I was 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 a battery.’
      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 camp.
      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 accuracy.

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.

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Editor John S Goulet



  Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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