Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Is it Just me?

Lately I have been taking multi-engine flight lessons. Mostly this is about thinking faster and learning to manage the more complicated systems that come along with having two engines. But there is a huge focus on how the airplane works if one of the engines stops running. The essence of it is the running engine creates more thrust than the dead engine (duh!), and that since the engines are not aligned with the center of the airplane, the thrust becomes asymmetric, and attempts to rotate the airplane around the dead engine. This asymmetric thrust can be countered by aerodynamic forces, as long as there is enough airflow over the rudder.

This point is important due to a simple statistical fact: Private pilots (not airliners or corporate jet pilots) are more likely to kill themselves per hour flown in a multi-engine airplane than a single engine airplane. The reason for this appears to be mismanagement of airspeed once an engine is lost, and the resulting loss of directional control. The popular wisecrack is that the second engine is on the airplane to get you to the scene of the accident.

Anyway, multi-engine aircraft tend to be larger, heavier, and fly faster, so to manage the extra energy that comes with the added speed and mass, you have to be a think further ahead of the airplane, and the controls are a bit more truck-like down near landing, turning an unprepared landing into an arm-wrestling match.

This had my arrivals to the runway seeming more like we were shot down than landing. My patient and persistent instructor has been coaching me through this rough patch. Last night he cleared off his schedule so I could get in some extra time with him. The bulk of the problem seems to due to my lack of reliance on the trim. Getting ahead of the landing and getting more trim to reduce backpressure on the yoke is making a pleasant improvement.

So I wanted to honor him by making sure I was available and ready to fly, which brings me to the real point of this story. I’ve wanted to set my truck up to able to tow trailers that are owned by my family. In particular, a trailer that is large enough to carry my Kubota tractor and has optional side boards for hauling less “neat” loads, such as dirt or debris.

My truck has a hitch, and a small four-connector plug on the back, which runs lights and turn signals – but nothing more. I’ve been trying to add a heavy-duty connector, which will support trailer brakes as well.

Since a standard pickup truck does not have air hoses for running airbrakes like on semi-trucks, they use a varying electrical current to energize electric magnets that engage the brakes. Over the years there have been different systems to manage the electrical current, but the current system is to install a device that electronically measures changes in momentum, and then uses that to derive a braking force to be applied to the trailer. These small boxes mount on the dashboard of the truck and connect in to the wiring harness that runs to the back of the truck.

My truck came with this harness pre-installed; putting in the electric brake unit was simple. The harness on the other end was also preinstalled (thus the existing four-connector plug), but the extra wires were capped off waiting for the seven-connector plug to be installed.

The standard seven-connector plug has a center post with six flat connectors arranged so they look like they form a circle around the center. Kind of like this:

/ o \ AsciiArt Strikes again!
\ _ /

These connectors are the standard connector found on most every pickup-truck that is used to tow campers or utility trailers. Except ones my dad made. I often miss my dad who died in 1998, but in this case, I do not miss his penchant for using the most heavy-duty thing he could find. Dad discovered the connectors on semi-trucks were very similar but used round connectors instead, providing more secure connections. If they were good enough for truckers they must be better, and that’s what Dad wanted.

Of course there was no standard connection arrangement for these (remember semis use airbrakes instead of electrical brakes?) so Dad invented his own pin-out for his application. Somewhere along the line a standard connection was established, but Dad never retrofitted his trucks or trailers to be compliant. After all, he was the only one towing them, right?

When I bought the brake unit at Advanced Toys for Trucks, I also bought a seven-way connector and a bracket to mount it on my truck. But the connector was not the one Dad used, and the bracket was to be bolted to the underside of my bumper did not extend down far enough to get past the chrome cover on the bumper. So now I had the wrong connector, and the wrong bracket. Great.

Back to Advance Toys for Trucks where they have the right connector, but they think it is odd that I want one (just shut up and sell me what I want, and take my money). But not the right bracket.

Later I was out in the neighborhood of Bickford, the dealer that sold me my truck (for the most part, I respect these guys), and I noticed that many of the used trucks there had both the seven-way and four-way connectors. So I ordered a bracket like that and the parts guy said, “this must be the one, it is the only one they list.”

But the one that showed up was the wrong one.

This morning before time to go flying, I wanted to get the right bracket. I went to a Ford dealer closer to my house to try to get the different part. There I was told that no such part existed, and that I should try a specialty trailer store. The specialty store told me they could fabricate one for $90 an hour, plus material. Heck, I can make one myself for that price; I am unemployed with lots of time after all. But as I am getting back in my car, I notice the truck next to mine has the bracket on it that I am looking for, and it was clearly made by Ford to fit on the truck bumper.

That set me on a mission. Back to Bickford, this bracket clearly exists. I march back up to the parts counter, and tell them again what I am looking for, and present them with the bracket that was wrong. I explain to the parts guy that there is a whole row of used trucks out on their lot that has the bracket I want, and he looks at me like I have two heads. I explain that I will gladly walk him out to the eight acres of trucks outside to show him the bracket, but he asserts that he is the only guy working the counter and cannot leave, but if I tell him what year the truck is he can try to find it.

The bracket is on 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 trucks. This is pretty clear that it is a standard part. Back to the parts guy, where he says “Oh. I have one of those in stock.” ARRRRRG!

So on my third trip to the store, one to place the order, one to pick it up, and one to get the right one that was there all along and pay the restocking fee, I got my bracket. Why, oh why, does this have to be so hard?

But I made it to my flying lesson on time, and we had a very successful outing. Chuck failed the engine on me a couple of times; the weirdest one was as I was turning to land.

When I got home, It took me about 15 minutes re-drill the bracket to accept the new connector and mount it to my truck, and then run over to my mom’s house to pick up the trailer. So now I have the trailer at my house!