Musings from the Combat Pits

The Lost Nelson

By Buzz Wilson

Three weeks before the 2013 Bladder Grabber fast combat contest, we were testing planes at Robert Smith's house in Roy, Wash. Jeff Rein, Robert, and myself. John Knoppi was there to fly some of his planes.

To save time between changing a Nelson engine between planes I decided not to use the engine restraint wire. The first plane was tested and trimmed and the engine switched to the second plane. After one lap, I noticed a vibration and decided to try and slow the plane down. At some point in the process, I noticed the engine noise was not coming from where the plane was. The plane did a wounded bird flutter to the ground as the engine noise faded into the distance and then stopped.

When I went to the plane, there was no engine.

Now let me set the scene for you. Robert has 20 acres. His house sits about 100 feet from the edge of the flying circle.

On one side of his house is his garden, which you can see through the fog. To the side of the circle where the plane landed are Christmas trees of various heights and his shop.

To the back side of the circle is a large hay field.

Off to the side of the hay field is Robert's shop and garage for his backhoe and fifth-wheel trailer. On the other side of the shop is his pen with his peacocks. The female was setting on eggs -- off limits.

What I needed was a metal detector. The rental stores were closed on Sunday. Monday morning I picked one up and headed over to Robert's. Robert decided to get his high-power weed eater out and started cutting the high grass that was adjacent to the circle. Jeff had rendered an opinion that the engine would be within 50 feet of the circle. After cutting about .25 of an acre, I went over it with the metal detector but no luck. There was a tree that I just knew the engine was in. I went over to it and started moving the metal detector over it and it began to sing. Unfortunately it was the wrong song. There is a tremendous amount of iron in the soil and the trees suck it up. I went down and got one of Robert's Nelsons and did a baseline. I also let Rufus (below right) and Sparky smell the engine just in case they wanted to help in the search. No Rufus, find the engine.

The metal detector did not have a big sweep disc on it but just a one inch diameter tube. I decided that it was not going to be of much use so I started to rake the cut area. In the meantime, Robert went up on his roof and looked in the gutter and then using binoculars began to look in the trees. As I watched Robert, he seemed to have a stability problem. Standing on the pitched roof and looking through the binoculars, Robert was wobbling from side to side. We were getting false sightings from the trees. There were large gobs of pitch which were reflecting light that looked like it might be aluminum.

When I took the metal detector back to the rental company, I told them it did not work and I wanted my money back. They asked me what was wrong. I said it did not find what I was looking for. They said sorry, you have to pay.

Jeff Rein said that the engine would be within 50 feet of the edge of the circle. Taking his advice, I searched the edge of the circle, but no engine. When I told him this, he had more encouragement. He said, just admit that it is lost. Then he told me the story of watching his airplane and hot Super Tiger sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. I was not ready to give up the search.

What I needed to do was some engineering to figure out where the engine could be. Sound can play tricks on your ears so what seemed to be a long engine run needed to be quantified. We ran some test to figure out how long a Nelson would run once the fuel was cut off. Knowing this and using a range of speeds, I calculated that the engine could have gone a distance of 300 feet. From where the plane landed I figured out a range of angles (trajectory) that the engine should have taken. At one point in the process, I commented to Robert that it would have been so much easier if the engine had flown through his living room window. A little glass cleanup and a new window and I would have my engine.

Robert grows hay on the backside of his property. We had attacked about 100 feet from the edge of the circle with weed eaters and a rake but no engine. Time to bring in the big gun. The farmer that cuts Robert's hay showed up and spent two days cutting the hay. On the third day I showed up and followed behind the hay rake. Temperature was around 90 degrees and no wind. This meant I was engulfed in a cloud of dust. Robert's brother-in-law showed up with a different metal detector. But no luck. The only good news was that the farmer said he fed the cows in the same area, so if the engine got eaten it would reappear in a confined area. The hay field yielded about 300 bales of hay. So all I needed to do was to wait for 60 days and the hay would be consumed and turned into meadow muffins.

Robert uses a wood stove to heat his shop and has a large wood stack.

I climbed over the stack but no luck. He said I was welcome to unstack the pile but that I would have to restack the wood. I figured I would let him find it as he heated his shop this winter.

In October 2013, I was back east finishing up my 2012 vacation. Yes 2012 vacation. I got trapped at Kitty Hawk, N.C. by Hurricane Sandy when I went to Kill Devil Hill and could not get up to visit the Air and Space Museums in Washington, D.C., so went back in the fall of 2013. When I heard there was a strong windstorm the last weekend in September in Washington state I briefly thought that maybe, just maybe, it would free my engine from a tree. I got back late Wednesday night and was told that Robert tried to call me. I called him Thursday morning just knowing he had found my engine. No such luck.

The phone rang on Friday and it was Robert. His opening line was “Guess what?” I said you found my engine. His reply was “Yes.” He was in his garden picking the last of the corn. At the end of the last row at the last stalk, he looked down and said to himself, that looks like a Nelson -- and it was. Here is where the engine was found:

During my search, I never went into the garden; I did pass close to where it was found. What amazed me was the apparent angle that the engine took. I went back and looked at where the engine landed and worked backwards to see why my calculations were off. I only knew where the plane landed and assumed that it was the center of the loop. In fact it was the backside of the loop. The actual distance was 240 feet.

It was a foggy day. Follow the white line. If you look closely you will either see Robert or his scarecrow twin.

Robert brought the engine to me that weekend, here is what it looked like before I cleaned it up. Notice that the prop was not broken.

I did a surface cleaning of the engine and then put it through an ultrasonic cleaner. When I was talking with Jeff, he asked me if I took the bearings out. I said no. He told me that ultrasonic cleaning bearings would cause problems. I tried to find something on the Internet but could not. I asked Henry Nelson, and he said the phenomenom is called false-brinelling.

I sent Henry an email explaining the problem with the engine. Henry said, “Send the carcass and I'll fix it.”

Here are the pieces that had to be replaced.

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This page was upated July 13, 2016