Those rotary engines. . . the Le Rhones, the Monos, and the Clergets! They made a sort of crackling hiss, and always the same smell of castor oil spraying backwards The 0il in a fine mist over your leather helmet and your coat. They were delightful to fly, the controls so light, the engines so smooth running. Up among the sunlit cumulus under the blue sky I could loop and rolls and spin my Camel with the pressure of two fingers on the stick besides the button which I used as little as possible. Looping, turn off the petrol by the big plug cock upon the panel just before the bottom of the dive, ease the stick gently back and over you go. The engine dies at the top of the loop; ease the stick fully back and turn the petrol on again so that the engine comes to life five or six seconds later.
- Neville Shute
What always strikes me when I get together with a certain bunch of friends is as all the conversations going on all at once about such varied subjects - Heinlein, Cordwainer Smith, reloading, airplanes, caffeinated beverages, trains, planes and automobiles and scotch eggs.
One discussion was on starting steam engines on trains, and that launched a conversation on starting round engines on airplanes as they are, shall we say, a bit temperamental.
You hardly see them any more, but those of us who flew them continue to share the wisdom, the collective bits of what I have read or heard I will share here.
The ancients wrote that the great things to be seen are sun, stars, water and clouds. I think they forgot the round engine.
I have a fair amount of experience flying jets and as much fun as I had, I do have to agree - there is absolutely no mystery to a jet engine. The air travels through it in a straight line and doesn't pick up any of the pungent fragrance of engine oil, hydraulic fluid or pilot sweat.
The rules for the operation of a jet are basic. When I first had some beginning airmen to teach there was this preprinted poster with the "four forces of flight". Lift. Weight. Thrust. Drag. Each were represented by a drawing of a man. Someone, of course, drew a dress on Mr. Drag, which now would just get them sent to the corner for "sensitivity training". But it wasn't all that much harder to teach airmen gas turbine engine technology. I have kitchen equipment more complicated.
Teaching someone to start one is even easier. Anyone can start a jet engine. You just need to move a switch from "OFF" to "START" and them remember to move it back to "ON" after a while. Sometimes you don't even have to remember to move it back to "On" as the switch is spring loaded. To start a jet engine you need a couple of fingers. To start a round engine you need two hands that can move like a hummingbird on crack. The right hand for the primer, energize and engage switches, the left hand being busy with the throttle, magneto then back to the throttle to control the starting RPM and then for the mixture and. . .
Even being ambidextrous and nimble isn't enough start a round engine, you seduce it into motion, which requires skill, finesse, patience, a gentle touch and a fair bit if style. Failing that there are curse words. If that fails there is meditation and celibacy. If the mission is critical you don't let the new guy start the engine. On some planes the pilot isn't even allowed to do it.
Just as you don't want to start a conversation with your wife that starts with "what the hell!" or contains the words 'breast enlargement', 'Oprah',or 'your mother', you do NOT want to start the checklist with the preamble of "this baby always fires right up!". You've jinxed yourself right there.
You've just got too much working against you. For starters, there is no computer controlling the fuel/air mixture. If the mixture is too rich you'll end up with parts of the engine that look like wet charcoal briquettes and then it's NEVER going to start. If it's too lean it won't start. The mixture is like being married, giving you new ways every day you can be wrong.
It's been said that jet engines start by whining for a while, then give a delicate girly little "poof"and start whining a wee bit louder. Round engines give a satisfying rattle-rattle, click-click, BANG, more rattles, another BANG, a big manly BELCH, followed by the explosive resonance of of a mechanical FART, more clicks, a bunch of smoke and finally, the serious perfection of low pitched roar. It's the sound that machines should make.
With that would be a shout somewhere from the tarmac of "YES!" flung outward into the air, carried away on the wind like a dropped scrap of paper
As many have said, starting a jet engine is about as 'exciting as turning on your ceiling fan'. Click. Done. The passengers look bored. When you have started his round engine successfully your Crew Chief looks at you as if he'd like to marry you, or at least let you borrow his car. If it's a particular cantankerous bird sometimes the passengers applaud. Successfully start your jet engine and your copilot yawns.
Jet engines don't break or catch fire often enough, which leads to complacency and inattention. Think about it, the round engine could blow an oil seal ring, burst into flame or sputter like a Democrat at a debate, then suddenly quit, at any given moment. Even a perfectly operational round engine at speed looks as if it's going to blow any second now. This helps keep the crew concentrated on the job at all times. You never saw round engine pilots playing on their computer or falling asleep in the cockpit. No sir.
Jet engines don't' have enough control levers or gauges to keep a a pilot busy. There's nothing to fiddle with during really long flights other than the FMS or your lunch.
Round engines smell like your favorite shop or being in your favorite shop after barbecuing pork. Jet engines smell like a dirty flashlight. At the end of the day in a jet, you smell pretty much like you did when you started. When you go home from flying a round engine, you smell like Kuwait.
But if you are so lucky to have flown one, you will never forget. Those mornings getting to the flight line, the normal edge of nervousness that precedes any mission humming from within you. The airplane looms into view, that big round engine looking bigger than when you left it as if it grew in the night.
The cockpit is as dark as space as if marooned somewhere in the cosmos, waiting to swallow me up if I screw this up. My uniform shirt is stiff, my hands are ready, time to show this airplane who the boss is, or remain forever still. We wait for orders, we wait for light, a hesitation in cooling space across which blew the dense oily smell of a radial engine, laying like cold smoke against my tongue, so thick I can taste it.
How well I remember those moments, the small trickling of fear, not a fear that you can't conquer a simple engine, but the feeling we all have when entering a realm that man wasn't intended for. I think about silent failures, of fire, of flame, the feeling of immortality that is the luxury of youth long having left as one takes on responsibilities not meant for children.
I'll lay my wits against a round engine's smoking passivity and if the stars align right we'll be on our way. We'll be up where the air is fierce and cold, surrounded by all that is familiar, the dials, gauges, switches, each with a mark of human hands and sweat on them. Shadows bow before a waving sun, the chill in the air an intractable summons of fall, cast upon summer skies. From up ahead, another plane in our group, the spurt of smoke from her, the only sign of movement.
Constantly keeping the instrument in my scan, we're moving forward only by blood and sweat, history and instinct, compassing forever between safety and a horizon unknown. Clouds build in the distance, lightning flashes off to our right, the sky full of promise and danger, vast bodies of water into which we could disappear forever, tall mountains of ice and rock and fluid need. We are aware of little of it and all of it as we wonder just how many hours ahead it will be before gravity and sleep and a cold beer are in our view.
We must have patience, and we do, for we fly round engines.