TERRY FISHER, ELECTRICAL CONDUIT PIPE, PONAL COLD WOOD GLUE AND AN ERCOUPE!
(As told to Alan Evan-Hanes with additional input from Noel Otten)
If you love a sport, it is only natural to encourage others to join in your passion, especially if they show an inkling of interest. The following account of bizarre events is so unbelievable, it just has to be true. To protect the guilty the names have been changed, but for the sake of readability we will give the enthusiastic pilot the nondescript alias of Bob.
Bob had been introduced to Terry Fisher while pursuing his other passion (apart from Motor Racing and Snow Skiing) which was yachting, at the Victoria Lake Yacht Club (the rather wet forced landing area just north of Rand Airport). Although not yet a pilot, Terry expressed significant interest after being taken for a ride in Bob’s Tiger Moth.
Terry had built a number of yachts in his lounge, and was not afraid of hard work, but his impecunity (a shortage of money – for those who lack a nearby dictionary) often led him into more exciting adventures than he had planned. This tale is only a minor example. Being conscious that Terry had very limited aviation experience, Bob directed him towards an Ercoupe that was in pieces and in need of some work at Rand Airport.
The Ercoupe had a reputation as being very safe to fly, and was therefore deemed to be an excellent choice for Terry. The sales gimmick for Ercoupes was to arrive at a small hick town, landing carefully into wind on a nearby field and offer rides to the Bank Manager or Mayor, who could apparently be sent solo in about 2 hours. The Bank Manager was preferred so that his newfound enthusiasm for aviation might be shared by him in issuing loans to others to also buy Ercoupes. Soon you had an entire town not truly understanding what the fuss was about in getting a pilot’s license. Hell son why did you take 5 hours to solo a Piper Cub – what is wrong with you lad?
Some further explanation as to the minimal instruction input is necessary. The Ercoupe had no rudder controls, the only pedal being for the brakes. The rudders were linked to the ailerons, and it had limited elevator travel so that it could not be made to stall or spin. If there ever was an aircraft that you DROVE around the sky, this was it. Normal pilots could not FLY it. Another problem was that crosswind landings allowed the upwind wing to lift as you corrected the drift by using ailerons.
Soon after parting with R600, Terry was the proud owner of the semi-dismantled Ercoupe now at Baragwanath. Unbelievably within a few weeks of work it was almost ready to fly. Terry had taken one or two flying lessons, but was far from being sent solo on any aircraft. It finally came time to perform engine runs, but with every swing of the prop it failed to start. The opening of the throttle a little more each swing guaranteed the impending spectacle.
Started it did, with Terry diving out of the path of the 65hp mixer-mincer-shredder just in time to catch a wingtip. He was said to perform a wonderful waltz as the Ercoupe pirouetted around his increasingly desperate and fatigued body. Luckily he finally let go so that the Ercoupe sped off across the airfield rather than in the direction of expensive nearby aircraft and increasingly amused spectators.
It had just too little power to remain airborne, so it hopped pilotless out of ground effect and then dropped down to briefly contact the ground again, finally catching the airport boundary fence and ending up inverted. Damage was limited to the prop, engine mount and rudders (it had two wooden rudders).
(Noel Otten) I can still see Terry hanging onto the wing tip going round and round. It looked to me that he deliberately let go of the wing tip when the aircraft was pointing away from the hangars and other aircraft. It was pointed due west towards the parallel power/glider runways, which were at a lower elevation than the hangars.
Terry was tall, and had a rather gangly type gait. He took off after the Ercoupe taking long loping strides. By the time it hit the fence and up-ended itself, I was rolling around in the dirt with laughter as were about 10 other people.
Not sure whether to be happy that it did finally start, or that he had survived his ballet session; he set about repairing the damage. Terry had not yet mastered the approved aircraft repair techniques and associated standards, and he had also failed to grasp the subtleties in material specifications. He believed that electrical conduit pipe was an accepted substitute for seamless chrome-molybdenum steel for the engine mount. Ponel’s wood glue worked acceptably in boats, thereby deducing it must be perfect for aircraft.
(Noel Otten) I was in my workshop one Sunday afternoon when in walked Terry Fisher. He wanted to know about timber and glue. He wanted just a ‘few’ pieces to repair his Ercoupe. When I told him the price for the Spruce and the ‘AERODUX 500’ glue he nearly had an apoplectic fit! And as for the price of 4130 Tubing, that was simply highway robbery. Pine or Meranti with PONAL ‘cold PVA’ glue and Electrical conduit would simply ‘have to do’!
The fact that hardware store grade ‘cold’ PVA glue is about as water-proof as a cheap T Shirt in a ‘wet T Shirt contest’ had no effect on Terry! He made all his shelves out of PONAL and Chipboard and they were still stuck together.
Soon it was ready again for taxi tests, although he had by now, learnt to chock the aircraft prior to attempting starts. His newly developed safety consciousness also extended to only putting a litre of fuel in at a time, often directly from a glass coke bottle in the cockpit. When undertaking a fast taxi test it got hit by a gust of wind, which had the immediate effect of lifting it into the air and simultaneously weather-cocking it into wind. Now faced with diminishing runway availability as well as it being 30 degrees off current heading, he was committed to a circuit.
The large quantity of fresh air in the fuel tank was not the only fuel problem. He had not anticipated becoming airborne so had failed to secure the fuel cap just in front of the cockpit. It was held by a small length of bath chain which allowed it to beat against the windshield. Terry tried vainly but it remained elusively just out of reach it through the open cockpit windows, so he undid his seatbelts, stood up in the cockpit to reach over the windshield to tighten the cap and prevent it from breaking the windshield. However as he did this at the now dizzy height of 500 feet, the change in centre-of-gravity pushed the nose down. So he had to time it just right, pull enough not to stall, stand up and reach forward. He was acutely aware that there was only a very limited amount of fuel, maybe just enough for one circuit. Amazingly the Ercoupe escaped undamaged from Terry’s self-initiated first solo flight; but the now terrified and wiser Terry sought some instruction.
(Noel Otten) Now this was a far more serious incident and we were not laughing! I was in my hangar and did not see the take-off. I heard the motor pulsing as the throttle was opened and closed. I then saw the aircraft at low level on a ‘sort of downwind’… it was not flying parallel to the runway. I could not see Terry attempting to close the fuel cap. All I was concerned about was that he would crash somewhere off the field so I was grabbing for fire extinguishers. Then I heard that sickening silence as the motor died. I ran out in time to see the aircraft turning towards the runway. By the time I got to the end of the row of hangars where I could see the runway Terry was on the ground… and that is when the ‘full story’ was revealed!
Various instructors were approached, who despite their own shortage of funds, had witnessed either the rebuild or the self-induced solo; or had by now absorbed the reputation thereof, and immediately made themselves unavailable. They would love to assist but were waiting for a student to arrive who had already paid in advance – in fact they should have been here already.
Bob took pity on Terry’s predicament and agreed to fly a circuit or two with him. He found that Terry had developed the concerning habit of pushing the nose down hard on short final, and after the third circuit of trying to change this routine, found that the cross wind was slowly increasing which actually necessitated immediate application of stick hard forward on landing to ensure the nosewheel remained in contact with the runway, to allow some directional control. During the fourth circuit as power was applied for another attempt, Bob pulled the control column back for rotation, and Terry pushed but the only effect this had was to allow Bob to pull the entire co-pilot’s control column out of the instrument panel. Terry was now unintentionally sending himself solo for the second time – this time with a passenger. They landed frightened but without mishap.
Quite understandably, Terry now found that flying was not really his cup of tea; and decided he much preferred sailing. Faced with the problem of disposing of his aircraft, it was sold including a conversion onto type. A new buyer was eventually found – a church minister from the Natal South Coast, who arrived on schedule with the all agreed funds in cash.
Every instructor on the airfield who was eagerly witnessing the next instalment of this spectacle immediately needed to catch up on urgent paperwork or quietly vanished as Terry approached. Eventually a non-resident instructor was cajoled into assisting the sale, but after having done a circuit with the Minister, felt very uncomfortable in this strange aircraft with its odd controls.
The non-resident instructor then had an epiphany – why not let Terry complete the conversion as he already had some solo experience with this strange machine, and he must therefore be better suited to the task at hand. The paperwork would only be completed on landing of course. So we had a non-pilot with under 10 hours total time giving instruction to someone who had never flown before.
God must have looked kindly on the new buyer that day, as he was successfully sent solo by Terry, and then immediately flew off home to Natal without incident.
This does truly say lots for the docility of the Ercoupe, but it also suggests that if you are an Ercoupe owner you might want to carefully examine the exact material used for your engine mount and other bits.
Terry had many other self-induced adventures, including getting lost with the same Bob at sea in a cyclone while trying to steal one of his own yachts from out under the noses of the Mozambique government from Lorenzo Marques harbour. Against all odds Terry died peacefully in his sleep of old age.