The Dawn Patrol

Carburetor confusion.


When I last left you, I was trying to find out why the VW engine on my beloved 28-year-old Graham Lee Nieuport 11 was sagging. It did this every time I shoved the throttle back in, while doing touch and goes at beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport.

The Bush Lite takes off from the strip at Valley Engineering’s ranch, close to Rolla, Missouri. With a 50-hp two-stroke Hirth, it is a legal ultralight. With the 50-hp Valley Engineering Big Bad Twin, it’s an Experimental.

We’d already gone through the carburetor and found nothing wrong with it. When I said “we’d,” I meant the entire brain trust at the airport had all contributed their two cents’ worth.

Now when I say “brain trust,” I’m talking about a virtual unlimited database of important, relevant, and on-the-subject comments, suggestions, and “let’s try this” types of input.

My job is to listen to and try to assess the input, both asked for and unasked. The unasked for is invariably forthcoming from every person that happens to fly in, drive in, walk in, and bike in to the field. An open hangar with a plane with its cowling off is a magnet for this kind of crowd.

Of course, some of the input was so blatantly off the reservation that it wasn’t even considered. Another problem at the airport is the preponderance of practical jokers lurking in the herd. Filtering out the wheat from the chaff is a necessary chore.

But then there was the input from the “real” mechanics at the field: Tom Glaeser, Dick Lemons, Dennis Brooks, Vernon Petre, Mark Pierce, Big Bad Bob Loyd, Jerry (the Rotaxman) Sharp, and of course, “Hollywood Harvey” Cleveland. These “golden” inputs were the ones that needed to be listened to, tried out, and acted on. Tom was an A&P. Harvey’s both an A&P coupled with being a CFII and IA with over 23,000 hours of flight time. Mark, Big Bad Bob, Vernon, Dennis, and Dick are all accomplished engine mechanics. And, of course, lurking in the background, there’s Jerry (the Rotaxman). He’s a force of nature when it comes to engines, both two-stroke and four-stroke.

Larry Smith explains some of the design features of the Bush Lite. Power is a 50-hp Hirth.

A Quick Diversion

Back in 1993, we were in the process of the big cleanup at the field from the history-making flood of ’93. We were toiling away, standing in knee-deep liquid mud in 100-degree temperatures coupled with mind-altering humidity—not to mention humming clouds of voracious ravenous mosquitoes that called in for clearance before landing on you and chowing down.

Jerry had rented the last front-end bucket equipped Kubota tractor the rental place had available. When he got it to the field, he found that the reason it was the last one there was because it had a front-end oil seal that leaked oil out about as fast as you could pour it in.

Juanita Smith (aka Granny) works on covering the wing of the newest creation from the mind of Gene Smith: an ultralight-legal bush plane they call the Bush Lite.

After a very educational five-minute rant, which I will admit, we all enjoyed to the extent that some of us were taking notes, Jerry grabbed his tools and went to town. While standing in knee-deep mud, he disassembled the engine. After assessing the situation he drove, covered in mud, to a Kubota dealer. He bought the oil seal, installed it, reassembled the engine and had it back scooping mud in one afternoon. To say we were all impressed would be an understatement. Add the fact that he didn’t drop one wrench or socket in the mud to be lost forever, and you had a Homeric achievement. A real plus was that during this whole procedure, his pungent language drove all the mosquitoes away.

Back on Topic

Anyway, all the good input I was getting pointed to carburetion problems. But the suggestions and advice from the brain trust sometimes conflicted with each other. Some guys said it was the main jet. Other’s said the idle jets. Then we had the adjust-the-float-level aficionados.

I started playing with the main jets. I went richer. I went leaner. Same results each time. She’d sag on a touch and go.

James Lewis explains to Dennis Brooks what he’s making on the lathe for the Bush Lite.

Then I started playing with the other jets and float level. There’s a lot of stuff in there to play with, too: main jets, idle jets, air corrector jets, pump jets, accelerator pump arm, idle mixture screw, etc. The possibilities for a monumental screw-up were endless.

The only good thing to come from this was I was getting so good at changing things around that I no longer had the circle of chairs watching me work on the plane. When I wasn’t screwing up, the event became so boring the circle of critical bums went elsewhere for entertainment.

Larry Smith and Dick Lemons put Dick’s Big Bad Twin engine on the stand before starting the teardown.

But, in spite of all my efforts…it was getting worse. Now when I shoved the throttle back in on a touch and go, the engine sometimes would just flat quit. I’d restart it, taxi back in, and try something else. The brain trust was running out of ideas.

Finally I broke down and decided to take the carburetor to my main engine guru, Gene Smith of Valley Engineering down in Rolla, Missouri. Valley Engineering is also the home of Culver Props. We’ve been customers since the early ’90s for props and engines. We have three of Gene’s Big Bad Twin four-stroke engines on our planes at the field, and the VW engine on my Nieuport is one of his engines. All of us are flying with Culver props; Gene’s granddaughter, Alaina Lewis, made most of them.

Dial-checking the run-out on the crank with a new flywheel shows that the crank was not bent on impact, just the flywheel. “Whew!”

We decided to drive down there just because we like to visit them and see what’s going on. Dick Lemons decided to go too, with the Big Bad Twin engine from his Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker E-III that got dropped and seriously (we thought) damaged. Larry Smith, Gene’s son, is the Big Bad Twin guru. Alaina Lewis, Larry’s daughter, is the head prop momma. James Lewis, Alaina’s hubby, is the master welder who builds the Valley Engineering swing-wing Back Yard Flyer. Juanita (aka Granny), Gene’s wife, is the all-around helper at the plant and is also a very proficient fabric worker when it comes to covering one of the Back Yard Flyers. Valley Engineering is truly a family operation that takes great pride in their work.

Gene Smith is the idea man for the whole kit and kaboodle. I call him “The Mad Scientist” for his innovative out-of-the-box creations. The automatic-carburetor heat function on all Valley Engineering engines is just one of his many neat ideas. The Series 3 Valley Engineering PSRU that’s on all our planes swinging big props is also a product of his Rolla, Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy background. (Now it’s called Missouri University of Science and Technology.)

Road Trip

Getting The Dawn Patrol ready for a road trip is a logistics adventure. Treats and drinks are a necessity. Planned potty breaks are important, too. It’s a hard four-hour, and a more relaxed five-hour, drive to Rolla from Liberty Landing International Airport. We usually do the relaxed tour on the way down and the hard drive on the way home. Leaving at five in the morning usually gets us to the Valley Engineering plant about 10 a.m.

This trip was no exception; we rolled into the plant about 10 o’clock. Larry, James, and Alaina were standing there waiting for us. Gene was off on a delivery, and Granny was watching Alaina’s two ankle-biters, Paige and Abigail.

Alaina starts applying glue to one of the laminations for a prop.

Dick, James, and Larry unloaded Dick’s Big Bad Twin and mounted it on an engine stand. Larry had the case open and was digging around inside it in less than 10 minutes. It wasn’t as bad as Dick had thought. The crank wasn’t bent, just the flywheel. The coils had to be replaced, and a new flywheel needed to be ordered. But all in all, it was going to be a pretty simple bolt-on repair.

I got bored quickly watching mechanical work. It’s not my thing.

Actually, work is not my thing either. Sweetie and I went into the prop shop to see what Alaina was doing. She was a busy little bee, too.

Alaina places the laminated prop in a hydraulic press to bond the laminations together. The pressure is decided by the wood used and size of the prop

There were four props on order in the shop in different stages of construction. She was working on two 96-inch props going to France. An 84-inch prop was going to New Zealand. Then there was a 90-inch prop heading for Sweden. She was cutting out wood planks to be laminated together for one of them. There was another in the hydraulic press getting its laminations glued together. Another one was in the prop-carving machine. The forth one was ready for final sanding and balancing. There was sawdust in the air to be sure!

We got the two-dollar tour from Alaina while we were there. She really knows her stuff, too. When she was explaining how she can fiddle with the prop-carving machine to make it carve a left hand prop from a right-hand blank, my eyes glazed over after the first minute.

Sharon Starks watches as Alaina makes one last check before starting the prop carver.

Just about then, the office phone rang. Alaina ran to answer it. She’s also the office manager.

“Culver Props,” Alaina chirped into the phone.

With the pattern on top and the new prop on the bottom, the carver starts the process. You can see the saw making its first cut at the hub of the prop.


“What plane is the prop for, and what engine do you have?”


Her eyes went to slits, and her face got a little red.

Biting off her words she said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, there is a man here you can talk to, but you’ve gotta get through me first. By the way…I’m going to be the one building your prop. What do you need to know?”


Then she asked and got answers to a series of questions about engine size, engine rpm, type of plane, pusher or tractor, prop diameter, anticipated airspeed, home field height above sea level, and some other stuff that once again, glazed my eyes over.

Using a drum sander, Alaina smooths the wood around the hub of a prop (above). She also made a monster 92-inch-tall propeller for a V-77 Stinson. The prop is made from 10 half-inch laminations of maple, cherry, and mahogany (right).

She quoted him a price and delivery date, took his credit card information, and ended the call.

She turned to me with fire in her eyes. “Why do you men always think that because I’m a girl, I don’t know props?”

Sharon joyfully jumped in the pool by telling Alaina of the responses she gets when she runs into some “Mouth-breathing Neanderthal macho-man wearing a wife-beater T-shirt” at airshows. They think that just because she’s a “little old lady,” she doesn’t know about WW-I airplanes or flying.

There was a quiet simmering sisterly moment as they bonded. The estrogen level in the room was inching toward the “lethal” mark.

Seeing two sets of fire-filled eyes drilling into me waiting for me to say something…anything…I wisely kept my mouth shut.

It’s during moments like these that truly…all men are pigs.

Choosing discretion, I beat-feet a retreat back to the engine shop where Larry and Dick were finishing up on Dick’s engine. Plans were made and parts ordered on the spot. Even better, Larry was going to deliver the engine, along with some props and other stuff ordered by other WW-I pilots, at the Gardner, Kansas, WW-I Gathering of Eagles in two weeks. You can’t beat service like that!

So, filled with high-hopes and resolve, we gathered up the gang and headed back to Kansas City.

What About the Carburetor?

One last thing: Alaina called me two days later and gave me an update on my carb. She said, “Grandpa saw your fingerprints on it and decided to give it a complete overhaul.” She said he kept saying to himself as he discovered all that I had done to the poor thing, “What could he have been thinking?”

The overhauled carb came back nicely packaged by Granny via UPS. I mounted it on The Gray Falcon and headed out for a test flight. All went well getting into the air. Then it was time for a touch and go. We landed and I shoved the throttle in.

The mighty VW roared in anger and away we went. All was well and an entire summer of carefree flying stretched ahead of us. The adventure was going to continue.

By the way, if you do need a really nice wood prop, you might consider giving Culver Props a call. Like I said, we’ve been using their props and engines for over 20 years. If you do call them, you might get lucky and this cute chirpy voice will answer the phone saying, “Culver Props.”

Alaina took this photo of Gene working on Dick’s carburetor without him knowing she was doing it. We’re not sure what he was doing, but whatever it was…it worked!

Just open the conversation by saying you need to speak to a man about a prop. Now, your next step is very important, and timing is critical here. Before Alaina can crawl through the phone lines and strangle you with your tongue, quickly say, “Dick Starks told me to say that.”

You should escape with your life, and your adventure can continue.

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Dick Starks
Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.


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