Saturday, February 11, 2017

Knights of the Round Engines - A Home on the Range Guest Post


Brigid from Home on the Range here.  Many of you know I had to take my blog private due to some post election trolls.  I never once mentioned the election, preferring to blog about firearms, planes, whiskey, and labrador retrievers, but there still were trolls., not simply rude but threatening.  So for those few readers I was able to add in to read privately, thanks for stopping.  For others that asked after blogger cut off the number of folks I could add, Borepatch and  ASM826 have kindly offered to let me guest blog here, which I'll try to do a few times a month.  My husband, otherwise known as Partner in Grime and I are well, and Dad is holding his own, with a 97th birthday looming  I'm on the road a lot marketing my third book, so blog time is light, but I appreciate everyone's private notes and kind words - B.
------------------------------------------

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.

 - Brigid

37 comments:

Sport Pilot said...



Great post! I love the sound of a rotary engine but there's all to few of them I see anymore. I miss your blog and really hate the fact that troll's made it untenable. But it's a delight to see you posting here so good for you...and the rest of us.

burt said...

Interesting - learned a lot I never knew.

Thank you Brigid - and welcome!!

Borepatch said...

I'm as tickled as can be that you are posting here.

igor said...

I used to be a regular reader at HotR, until the day that it was closed. Reading this entry here at least tells me why it happened. I suppose that Brigid included only those who were constant commenters, perhaps even tea drinkers, but that group did not include me, sad to say.

I would be glad to be able to read here posts, again, so if you would put a good word in for me, Borepatch, then I would appreciate it. After all, I have never trolled YOU, have I? :-)

michigan doug said...

I've missed your writing. This one was good, thank you. I'm glad your dad is doing OK.

Borepatch said...

igor, you have always been the picture of a gentleman. ;-)

The problem is that it seems that Blogger only lets someone invite 100 people to an invitation-only blog. I'm thrilled that Brigid is posting here when she wants to because it will let a broader audience read her writing.

Rich in NC said...

First, Thank you, Gentlemen for providing Ms B the opportunity to write here at Castle Borepatch.
Second, Thank you, Ms B for availing yourself this outlet.
...the grasp of the absurd, the wielding of the metaphor as to expose the ridiculous and the sublime of existence. "... smell like a dirty flashlight... smell like Kuwait...". Really?
Yes, I'm a fan. [I once took a ride in a Stearman Trainer that was being used as a 'Tow-plane' at a Glider Operation in Pennsylvania. Yep, it was fitted with a 450hp Pratt and Whitney Rotary (he cowling doesn't fit any more) engine. It was an unforgettable 20 minutes.] Thank you for sharing with us, the unwashed, masses.
Rich in NC

Differ said...

Glad to be able to read your work again Brigid.
Thanks BP.
Differ

Rev. Paul said...

B, it was an unexpected pleasure to encounter you here, and a nice start to my morning. And I learned much that I didn't know; there are quite a few radial-engined plancs at Merrill Field in Anchorage. Sadly, I have no idea how many of them still fly vs. how many are merely hardstand decoration.

Thanks, BP, for offering her a post here.

Brigid said...

Igor - thank you for the kind words. Given the nature of the trolling, reading privileges was not based on comments or any other factors but was given to people I had met in person or knew socially off blog and thus had their email addresses. Having an email address was the only way to add them to blogger for reading privileges which are limited to just a few dozen people. That's why I appreciated the chance to post here, for the rest of you loyal readers.

Brigid said...

Rev. Paul - the photos were all taken at an airshow in Minnesota and there were a LOT Of beautiful radial engine birds there in pristine condition.

Pete said...

Wow, very cool post. I always have really liked those types of engines, since my time as a kid working with gas engine-powered model airplanes, but never really knew much about them.

Old NFO said...

Pull it through 6 blades, crank it 8 blades, three spritzes on the primer, mags to both, and prayers... ;-) 1820s were/are a 'tad' temperamental...

dakotared said...

Brigid, so nice to hear your "voice" again. so sorry to hear about the trolls. most of us out here in flyover country remain quiet and angry. Thanks to NFO for letting you sing once in awhile.

Kinnison said...

Please to see more of your writing. The "Book of Barkley" is not quite enough after years of enjoying your main blog. Aside from the great writing, I also miss all the food entries and the recipes.

As a member of the Civil Air Patrol in my teens, I was fortunate enough to be able to ride in a Pittcairn Mailwing and a Stearman. Those were my two favorite rides other than some aerobatics in a Citabria.

waepnedmann said...

Thanks to Borepatch for allowing you posting priveliges.
I have missed your writing, recipes, and wit.
I have missed your voice.

Dozehead said...

So good to read Brigid again. Really missed her voice.
Thanks to Borepatch for giving her the opportunity to post here.

Rich P said...

Sopwith Camel and Spitfire in formation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6PnKUEFX8g

That's a rotary engine. The spinny bits are outside.
Radial: The spinny bits are mostly inside.

Delighted to see Brigid getting out again.

Richard said...

Glad to hear of you. Wondered what happened. Brought back many memories . My first time with a radial was an old "shaky jake" Jacobs in a Cessna 195 with cross wind gear. Went on to a 985 in a T-6 all the way to 3350 in a A1H. The only thing I think you missed was a hydraulic lock when a new crew chief over primed the beast.
Thanks Borepatch I'm glad you allowed.
Old Richard

The Neon Madman said...

Watched a DC4 land, unload and take off a couple of years ago in Alaska. There's still a few of the old birds flying up there.

Tewshooz said...

I have missed you

Brigid said...

Thank you so much for everyone for the warm welcome. Hopefully, in the future things will calm down and I can make HOTR live again but truly appreciate Borepatch and company welcoming me aboard. And yes, there will be a book about flying, but only on retirement, after 3 books in 3 years, I'm taking a breather and concentrating on my Dad as he enjoys his last days.

James said...

What a wonderful surprise to ind you here. If room ever opens up please put "man of the 50s" on the waiting list!

diesel smoke said...

Great post Glad to see you will be around. miss the stories.
When i was 19 got to fly a couple of trips with my dad in a DC-3.
No headsets. Never forget the sound.
Sign language is strong in this one to this day.
No autopilot. Night across the socal desert.
No moon, between active bombing ranges with flairs popping on both side.
I wanted a 3 in the worst, still do.
My flight instructor was one of my dads co-pilots. He logged the time as dual instruction.
Miss those days.
Thanks
DS

Murphy's Law said...

Mad love for the round engine and your portrayal of it. And the dogs and I agree that you're welcome at our blog shop any time too!

J Bogan said...

So nice to read you again, and what a topic!! Of the very few things in the world I really need, a round engine is about top on the list. With or without an aircraft.I think they are the absolute pinnacle of American engineering and manufacturing skill. Thanks so much.

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

So nice to be able to read you again! How wonderful to have flown real engines. You are a fortunate woman to be able to do so.

Will said...

Love to read about flying.
Very ticked off about your blog problems. Uncouth varmints.
Got your books, but discovered a deep reluctance to read about Barkley so soon. Been reading your blog for some years now, and his loss touched me as if I knew him in real life. You paint scenes with words so well, that one could almost step into them. A rare talent, indeed.

John said...

I was extremely fortunate to be near a B-17 (don't remember which one) when they started the engines. Seeing those big radials come to like with the roar of the exhaust, the sound of big props chewing into the air, and the underling mechanical noise of engines was an experience you don't get with jet. And I was standing there thinking of my father. It seems that a little known effect of WWII aircraft engines is they generate pollen, lots and lots of pollen.
Great to read you again!

Flugelman said...

Was wondering what happened to HotR. It's great to see you here. Back in my P-2 days if the plane captain backfired one of the 3350's it meant a case of beer for the crew. Those guys surely had magic fingers.

Guffaw in AZ said...

So glad to find you've another venue, Brigid!
(even though aircraft and rotary engines are largely mysterious to me)
And thanks to Borepatch for his graciousness!

gfa

ASM826 said...

Wow, just wow. Thanks, Brigid.

Matthew Wennerlund said...

So happy to be able to read you again Brigid, and thank you to Borepatch for the update and having you posting here.

Dale Chayes said...

Glad and relived to hear your "voice" again!

skybill said...

Hi Brigid!!!
Good to hear from you!! "YES!!" If the Airplane has a "Round Engine," is a "Tail Dragger" and has 2 wings (#3 is optional....eg, {Dr-1}) it's GOT TO BE GOOD!!!
skybill-out

Jon Schmidt said...

Been missing your blog. I enjoy reading your articles.

John in SD

BadFrog said...

Brigid, I wondered where the blog had gone to and why - there will be a special place in hell for trolls.