William Wynne

"The Corvair Authority"
5000-18 HWY 17 #247
Orange Park, FL 32003



Gardiner Mason's Pietenpol
Engine Installation Discussion
May 6, 2010

This past week there was a little discussion on the Pietenpol Internet group of some engine issues Pietenpol builder Gardiner Mason was having. I don't subscribe to it, but people tend to forward me e-mail from lists. Reading this and talking to Gardiner prompts this long post, which is actually a good chance for a lot of builders to learn about cooling systems. In the above photo, Gardiner stands in the wake of the prop blast from his engine. The photo was taken in front of our old hangar in 2006. He had previously come down to Corvair College. He collected up all the parts to assemble the engine, but didn't want to tackle it himself. Despite all my attempts to get him to try it himself, he didn't want to. He is an excellent craftsman in wood, and a very experienced pilot, but he has told me many times that he isn't an engine guy. When you meet Gardiner, you will find him persistent. When his mind is set, you will do well to alter your own plans. After some discussion, I agreed to have Kevin assemble his engine for a modest charge. We don't often do this because I greatly prefer to teach builders to do the work themselves, or to sell them a complete first class engine. Not many people have made a case to have us assemble an engine. But in Gardiner's case, I agreed to do so because I didn't want some local guy at his place doing it, and after a few days with him, I ended up liking him. After assembly we ran it on the dyno for a break in and it ran great, thus the photo above.

Gardiner started flying his plane a few months ago. It was cool weather when he started, and things worked out well. The weather was not all that cooperative, and it took until last week to get 15 hours on the plane. By all accounts, it ran well, and I spoke to Gardiner on the phone at the time to cover his questions. I sent him a copy of our 2009 Flight Ops Manual. (I suggest getting this long before the first flight, not after.) Gardiner pulled the pan to get to a small oil leak and reinstalled the engine. After this, he took a flight in the plane and experienced a significant power loss. When I spoke with him he mentioned that the plane had no compression on the 1-3-5 side. I knew this meant only one thing: The engine had been detonating. Gardiner had previously posted to the Web about finding the head nuts loose. I told him that this was a result of the problem, not the cause. My first suspicion was that the timing was not set correctly, or that he might have a vacuum leak in the manifold. Initially, Gardiner had built his own intake connections with o-rings that I was sure would cause him problems. But in operation he had reverted to a system that looked a lot more like our standard approach. In speaking with him, he said he did not personally set the timimg, that a local friend of his did. He also mentioned that after the initial hours he had let a now bankrupt Georgia Internet personality modify the inside of his distributor to "upgrade it." This caused me some concern. Gardiner is a nice fellow and doesn't keep up with information on who you shouldn't deal with. If someone made a move like this I would normally write them off, and not help them out, because I am not interested in cleaning up the mess that other people get into when I spend plently of time on the Net telling people who all the reliable sources of parts and info are. But in Gardiner's case, it was just an honest mistake of a guy who thinks everyone must be OK. We made plans on the phone and Gardiner drove the engine down in his wagon from the Atlanta area the next day. We normally don't run a lot of the buisness out of our personal hangar, but I have known Gardiner for a number of years, and I wanted to help him out.

When we pulled his engine out I got a good look at the parts. The trouble he had was a combination of having a very large split in the timing and a poor cooling system design. With Gardiner's approval, I post this collection of photos and words. I told him I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but I wanted people to learn from the experience. His first issue, the timing, is easily cured by not dealing with Internet people. Here is a big hint: If the person advertises on Barnstormers.com looking for a new "Business Partner," they are broke. If they hand out a brochure with a picture of a building they have been evicted from, they are broke. If they have LLC after their name and they are broke, they don't have to pay back anything. If they have been tossed off the Number One Corvair Discussion Group on the Web, CorvAircraft, they are not people who will advance your project. Only 10% of plans built planes are ever finished. To win at this game you need to make smart decisions and have good allies. Avoid people like the one Gardiner let work on his distributor before the last flight. The second half of the equation offers lessons that builders who are already making good decisions can benefit from. I have a lot of photos of Gardiner's cowl and there are a lot of lessons that builders can learn from it. Gardiner said that getting to Brodhead this year and returning is his goal, and if he could do this, he was glad if others can learn from his efforts.

Above is the front view of the left cylinder head. Gardiner tried a mixture of cooling ideas. At first glance, these look like J-3 scoops, but in final installation, there is a top cowling above it. Functionally, these are most similar to cooling plenums like the ones seen on Mark Langford's KR-2. Gardiner cited Mark Langford's aircraft as his inspiration; however, you cannot take a cooling system from a high speed aircraft and directly apply it to a low speed one. An aircraft that climbs at 50 mph doesn't get half the mass of air of one that climbs at 100 mph: It gets a quarter. The plenums here are way too low and too close to the cylinder heads. Gardiner feeds this from two 6" round holes. The holes are flanged and probably less than 6" in effective diameter. His nosebowl is reminiscent of a Curtiss Jenny. Flat nose panels do not help air flow into any inlet.

This shot is looking past the #2 cylinder at the 12-plate oil cooler. My testing reveals that a 12-plate is an appropriate cooler on a fast airplane like a KR-2 or a Cleanex. If you live in a cool climate you won't have trouble with one on a Pietenpol or a Zenith 601. However, if you live in a hot climate, or if you have a less efficient cowling, you would best be served by an actual aircraft cooler like a Niagara or a Positech. A number of Pietenpol builders are using a Niagara 20002. All of our STOL installations, like Zenith 701s, 750s and the PegVair, use a 20003 Niagara. Contrary to popular belief, slower airplanes need much better oil coolers than faster ones. Again, the mass of air coming through the cooler is four times higher by doubling the climb speed of the airplane. Many people with a Pietenpol have an eye toward saving money, but the oil cooler is a bad place to cut a corner. Again, you may see cheap coolers from VW bug catalogs, or from automotive sources working on KRs, but this means nothing on slow planes. If you want real oil cooling performance on an aircraft, the best idea is to get a real aircraft cooler. The primary problem in this 12-plate installation is that the lid is far too close to the top of the 12-plate cooler. It performs far better if the baffling is at least 2.5" above the oil cooler. Gardiner's installation was also missing the side baffling on the cooler. Corvair coolers have small sheet metal pieces that fit very closely to them to force all the air to go through the cooler and not escape around the sides. These parts are in the exploded views in the Clark's catalogs.

The arrow above points to the oil control ring on the #3 piston. In my Conversion Manual, I point out that #1 or #3 are almost always the hottest running cylinders on the Corvair in a typical installation. In Gardiner's case, he ran the CHT to the #2 spark plug because the lead was short to go over to the other side of the engine. In later photos, I will show why this was a bad choice in his installation. #3 suffered the worst detonation in his engine. I pulled the cylinder to look at the rings. This engine has Sealed Power pistons, just like 95% of the flying Corvairs. When these are subjected to detonation, they do not break, nor get holes in them. However, they do shrink down under the tremendous forces, and the oil ring groove becomes tight. If it is, the piston must be replaced. A cast piston in the same circumstances whould have a hole in it or would be in pieces.

Here is another top view of the 12-plate oil cooler. The lid on the box is just too close to the cooler for it to work. The air needs several inches to effectively turn and flow through the cooler. The face area of the cooler is about 3 x 5 inches. If the inlet to the box above it is 1" x 4," it will starve for air and not work up to its potential.

In the above photo, the arrow points to one of the two lower studs that hold on the rear accessory case. We also use these studs as mounting tabs for the intake manifold. In this photo of Gardiner's engine, there's a stack of washers under the nut. When we assemble an engine, we put two thin nuts all the way down next to the case. These stay torqued even if the intake manifold is taken on or off. If you loosen these nuts or remove or replace them with washers while the engine has oil in it, you will likely get an annoying oil leak at the bottom of the accessory case. Once it starts to leak oil, retorquing the case won't do a lot to stop it. It's not a big leak, it's just a messy one. It was this leak that motivated Gardiner to change his oil pan gasket, but that's not where the leak is coming from. It is small details like this, illustrated in numerous places on our Web site and taught at every Corvair College, that make the difference between a bone dry engine and one that looks a little oily.

This is a photo of the oil temp sender location. I have used them in the pan, but it is not my favorite location. The Gold Oil Filter Housings we sell have the temp sender located in the pressure oil stream, before the cooler and filter, a very consistent location to know the functioning oil temp of the engine. The problem with the pan location is that it often gives false readings. If the pan gets a lot of airblast, it reads too cool. If you let the plane sit on the ground, you get a false high because it starts reading the temp of the case of the engine, not the oil. On Gardiner's last flight, he said the oil temp which normally ran a high of 240 was much higher. This is consistent with an engine that is detonating. In one of his posts, he mentioned a temp of 290. In person he told me that this was a number that he saw on the ground after landing. This is probably attributable to the sender location picking up heat from the case. If the oil cooler had more effective baffling, and the cowling was a little different, the oil in this engine should not go over 230 at any time. A real aircraft cooler on the same installation would lower the temp by 30 degrees for a Niagara 20002, 40 for a 20003.

The arrow above is pointing at the head gasket area on the #3 cylinder.The head gaskets we use are solid copper. They have been removed, you are just looking at the head. The area should be a perfectly flat machined area. Look at how far the cylinder tops have been indented into the heads. This is only caused by detonation. When the engine is detonating, the local temp in this area can exceed 750 degrees. It does this in a few seconds, and it will not show quick enough on a CHT gauge. Gardiner reported a loss of rpm, from 2,800 available down to 2,000. This is severe detonation. Many times, people ask me if high oil temp can cause a loss of power, etc. Here is the absoluse bottom line: If you lose more than 50 rpm, immediately suspect detonation, and take action. I have actually had a builder try a take off when his engine was down 500 rpm from normal on a take off roll. (He had an "expert" set the timing for 55 degrees of advance.) If I see 75 rpm low on a plane on take off, I abort the take off. Any noticeable reduction in power on a Corvair is detonation. You can run the engine with the oil at 300 degrees, and it will actually make slightly more power on the dyno; likewise, a high CHT that isn't detonating will have little effect on power. Running on five cylinders, the engine will lose only about 250 rpm on take off. I point this out so that people can understand just how much violent force the engine is absorbing when it is detonating bad enough to lose 700 or 800 rpm.

Here is a second photo of the head gasket area. In a post to the Pietenpol list, Gardiner actually stated "the bolts on the right hand side of the engine had not been torqued." This is a very serious statement to make about the workmanship of my crew. It is not correct: The bolts were perfectly torqued before the engine detonated. When Corvair head studs are torqued to the rated load, the studs stretch slightly. The top row gets .025 to .030" longer, the bottom row slightly less. We have determined this through very accurate testing when we compared different thread lubricants versus torque settings in 2004. This clamping force holds the heads and cylinders on the engine. The stretched studs"spring load" the assembly so that it stays tight throughout the full temp range of the engine. This is one of the most highly refined parts of the Corvair design, and I used it as an example many times when teaching Materials Labs to engineering students at Embry Riddle. When Gardiner's engine detonated, the spring tension on the studs provided the force that drove the cylinders into the newly softened aluminum. The indent in the head is nearly the exact amount of the stretch on the studs. Had the heads not been torqued when his engine was assembled, it would have blown a head gasket on the test run at our shop. Second, it never would have flown the first 15 hours that his plane flew. Beyond that, there would be no dent in the head, because there would have been no tension on the studs.

Gardiner is a very nice man I have known for many years. It isn't a big deal to me that he made an incorrect statement in a moment of frustration, just as long as people take the time to look at these photos and have a real understanding of where the torque on the nuts went. However, while I am famously kind to kids, animals, and men my father's age, especially ones like Gardiner who served our country, I am not tolerant of people making statements that imply that myself or my crew made a mistake that we didn't make. I take my professional reputation very seriously. I was raised not to make careless statements about the work of others, and express no opinion before the facts are known. We all know that the Internet is the big soap box for people who don't live by this standard, but it has always been a part of the culture. I grew up in New Jersey, the state where Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Hamilton was a weasel, infamous for publishing vile and baseless attacks on the character of people he didn't like. This was most often done anonymously or under ficticious names, something of an Internet of the time. Burr detested Hamilton for this behavior, and called for a very formal duel. Over several weeks, Hamilton tried spin doctoring his statements with a lot of "I don't recall," but didn't want to lose face with a direct retraction. Today this wouldn't even cost a politician anything in his popularity ratings. In 1804 the decision cost Hamilton his life. An anger management specialist told me that my interest in Aaron Burr was largely benign, but he did suggest not joining Internet discussion groups, watching TV, or reading anything that was on the New York Times Best Seller List since 1967. He added that his expertise was for people who really needed it, not people who just want a different standard of human conduct. I am not a fan of violent solutions, and truth be told I have read more about the Dali Lama than Burr. But I do take quiet satisfaction that every monument to Hamilton put up at the site in the past 200 years has been stolen or vandalized by N.J. residents whose actions were likely fueled by Hamilton being a dainty phony, his invention of the federal banking system, and perhaps the consumption of too much beer on their part.

Above is a side photo of the same head. The straight edge is laying against the valve cover gasket area. If the head has been severely overheated, it will have a bow in it that will show a low spot right where the arrow is pointing. A feeler gauge is ok: 1/16" is something to check closely, and 1/8" is a candidate for the scrap heap. As seen here, Gardiner's head isn't bowed at all, which is a good sign. The head gasket areas still need to be carefully machined on a very accurate mill, and a very close eye must be put on the valve seats to make sure they are still tight in the head. This is not the kind of work that you entrust to people who are not real trained machinists. This is the kind of work that is sent to Mark at FalconMachine.net or Roy at RoysGarage.com.

Above is a photo of the head gasket. The black one closest to the arrow is the one from the #3 cylinder in Gardiner's engine. The copper colored one I removed from an engine with more than 200 hours on it. When I first spoke to Gardiner on the phone, I asked him if the head gasket was "blown." He said no. This was just a miscommunication. The black gasket is blown in Corvair terms. In other cars with fiber type gaskets, a blown head gasket will actually have a missing piece. In this case, the black is carbon on the surface from the combustion gasses blowing by the gasket after the cylinder indented the head. These parts have to be replaced. After the head is checked out, it will be machined flat in the gasket area. Thicker gaskets will be used to prevent the engine from having higher compression on this bank of cylinders than on the opposite side.

The above photo shows a big part of the issue that set Gardiner's overheat in motion. This top view of the engine shows that air that enters the plenums over each cylinder head cannot move laterally across the engine. On one of our standard baffling setups, air from both inlets fills the entire chamber above the engine. If more air enters on one side than the other, it is free to flow across the top of the engine and down through any available cooling path through the engine. In Gardiner's arrangement, air cannot do this. Again, the slower the plane climbs, the much more critical this becomes. The only flying Corvair powered CH-701 and Corvair powered Pegzair in the world had their cooling systems perfected in our shop years ago. Both of these planes can climb slower than a Pietenpol, and in both cases we used traditional baffle systems, not separate plenums.

There are a lot of pictures out there of my Pietenpol from 10 or 12 years ago. At first glance, it has a cooling system like Gardiner's. But details count. The openings I used for inlets were twice as large as Gardiner's, I kept the alternator on the back, and I went to a 2.5" scat hose to interconnect to two plenums under the top cowl. I also had an 11" spinner and a very streamlined nosebowl. This year, two of the Big Piets from Georgia flew down to Sun 'N Fun. Harolds's won Best Auto Engine Installation. Their systems look a lot like a J-3 Cub's. Clearly their systems work well, even in hot weather. They have far greater inlet area than Gardiner's plane, and they have a lot more area above the cylinder heads and the cooling baffles. Last year at Brodhead and Oshkosh, we had three Piets that had our standard engine layout. Kurt's was awarded the Bronze Lindy Trophy. They all flew well and cooled themselves fine. There were also two other Piets with traditional BHP cooling layouts that obviously worked well. In the past year, we have had a number of other Piet builders take to the air with success, and there are examples like P.F. Beck's that have flown to our Colleges. The best advice to any builder is to make an exact copy of a proven plane's cooling system. This means exact, not close to, or looks like. Successful guys don't mind sharing what has worked for them. The most common thing that successful builders of plans built planes share with me "off the record" is being surprised at how many people will take the advice of an Internet "expert" or someone with no direct experience over their type specific, firsthand, freely offered experience. I tell them that my personal goal is to get 50% of people to look at what I write, 25% to really read and understand it, and 10% to physically use the information. In an industry where a tiny fraction of planes are completed and old wives tales are repeated like sacred texts, these are ambitious goals. You can't help people who prefer what they want to hear over what they need to know.

Above is a shot of the #5 cylinder looking forward. Notice that the sheet metal baffle behind the alternator has had a large part of it cut away. This is a tactical error. This is a large leak of cooling air. The air went through this hole without doing any work to cool the engine. On air-cooled engines, I consider any hole bigger than 1/8" worth plugging. This is a "sink the Titanic" size leak. There is plenty of clearance between the front alternator and the #5 cylinder to have a full baffle to force all the incoming air to travel through the cooling fins and not allow it to escape under them. Some builders have a hard time seeing these as coolant leaks because they don't spill out green liquid, but they function just the same as a hole in your car radiator. In this case, a very big hole.

OK, I will be the first to admit that I am not an artist. With that subject closed, let's study the content. Here is the major cooling issue of a propeller-driven aircraft that many builders don't understand. When the plane is climbing at a 10 degree angle of attack, the blade roots near the cooling inlets have a 20 degree difference in their angle of attack between the effective angle of the ascending and the descending blades. They pump very different amounts of cooling air into each side of the engine. This is not theory, it is fact. Get into a light plane, fly to a safe altitude, slow it down to its best angle of climb speed and set it to full power. Notice how much rudder you have to put in to hold the aircraft heading. You may have been told that this was some swirling slipstream or "P" factor. Discard those ideas. A strand of yarn behind an engine on a test stand will show you the air even at zero airspeed doesn't corkscrew much, and "P" factor does not apply to aircraft in steady flight like a continuous climb on one heading. What is going on is far more simple; the ascending and descending blades are making very different amounts of thrust. You feel it in the rudder pedals, the engine feels it in differential cooling.

There is an easy solution for this: Let the engine share the cooling from both sides of the engine inlets, give it enough volume to balance out, and it will work fine, even on low speed aircraft. Every 150, 152 and 172 is set up this way. You don't hear about torching engine parts, and they don't even have CHT gauges. They are not all operated by master pilots either. They just have a cooling system that works. Again, the system on Mark Langford's well-known KR-2S works because it is a much faster aircraft, and it doesn't spend a lot of time climbing at a high angle of attack. I suspect that at his cruise climb speed, Mark's plane may be at less than 4 degrees. But it also has 100 mph air pouring in, a climb speed well above the top speed of most Piets. Works on a slick KR, but that doesn't mean that you can apply it to a Pietenpol. The single most common retort I hear to my comments on this subject is "Jabbiru 3300s have separate cooling plenums." Yes they do, and how is that working out for them? The engine has its fans, but the last thing anyone would say about it is that it has a good cooling record. Polls show that people who are attractive are often falsely credited with being more intelligent; I have seen countless cases where people assume that a plane is well built in every detail because it has a nice paint job. Just because an engine is machined out of a $16,000 block of aluminum doesn't mean that their approach to cooling is the best one for a particular plane. For all I know, their design is motivated by looking at how poor a job some people do with regular baffling, and then choosing to warranty the lesser of two evils. The beauty of it all is that I don't own a Jabbiru so I don't have to be concerned about their cooling issues, I merely point it out as a comparison on this subject.

Now think about Gardiner's engine for a minute.

He has an airframe that climbs at slow airspeed.

He has a non-optimized cowling.

He has separate cooling plenums.

The only CHT is on the side which gets more cooling air.

The other side has the alternator, the ascending blade, a hole in the baffling behind the alternator, and no CHT.

This should give builders working on their own planes a much better understanding of the factors at work, and things not to repeat on their own planes. Again, the easiest thing to do is copy one of the many cooling systems that have proven to work. I say this with the bitter understanding that builders who are most likely to need to follow this advice are also the ones who will later tell me, "Mine looks like one of the ones that works, I copied it by looking at a thumbnail photo on the Web, only I changed the nosebowl, the inlet area, left out some seals and I have a few more holes, but it is otherwise identical." This isn't what I mean by copying. If you have any question, make it in cardboard and send me a photo. Even if I don't e-mail you back the same day, it will still take a lot less time than replacing your head gaskets. The Corvair is a very tough engine when it comes to cooling. You have to really try to make it overheat. Just because the repair bill for Gardiner's engine could be as low as $200 is no reason to repeat this. Start with a proven system and you will get outstanding reliability. There are countless examples of flying Corvairs that have fantastically good cooling. A few simple choices, and your installation will be one of them.

Here is one last photo to explain the most important part of this, the human element. When Gardiner came down to our airport, I took him a few hangars over to "Dreamland." This is a hangar that is owned jointly by four U.S. Navy attack pilots. Today they are just about all retired from their second careers as airline guys, and they spend all their free time flying their collection of RVs and having a good time. The inside of their hangar is decorated with tons of mementos of Naval aviation like ejection seats, tail hooks, helmets, canopies, plaques, flight suits, and hundreds of photos. They have a bunkhouse set up to look exactly like a junior officer's berth aboard a carrier. I had a few of the guys who came down for Corvair College #17 stay there, and they thought it was great. These aviators pride themselves on being attack pilots, and it is a serious mistake to call them fighter pilots or make references to Top Gun. When we went down there, they were preparing for a 200-person party, a reunion of attack aviators, mostly A-4, A-7 and F/A-18 guys.

Most aviation businesses only know the people they work with as customers. We're not like that. I take every chance we have to really get to know our builders. This means spending the time on a late night call or after hours at a College to really share something, to understand what makes people tick. In the case of Gardiner, this means long ago learning that he was a Marine aviator all the way back in 1956, flying AD-6 Douglass Skyraiders. This alone made him a welcome guest of honor amoung the jet era attack guys. In building his plane, I am sure that he dealt with several dozen aviation supply companies who all claim to be passionate about their market. I seriously doubt that any of the other people knew what Gardiner was talking about when he said "I was a Spad driver." Some people look at it as a market, I see it as people.

Gardiner went on to a very long career with Delta. In the picture above, he is posing next to a drawing of a Delta 727. He flew almost everything in the Delta inventory from cargo versions of the C-46 Commando, DC-6s and 7s, through the 727. Three of the Navy guys also worked for Delta. They took some time comparing people they both knew and places they had all been. During a typical week, we all have plenty of opportunity to have discourse via computer with other people out there, some known, most a mystery. I have worked in aviation for 20 years or so, and I will gladly tell you that a year of evenings on the Net are not worth 15 minutes of sitting back and listening to several real people like Gardiner, Pat and Dave share good memories of years past and friends both still around and long gone.

Gardiner is in his mid-70s, but he is in good shape, and he flys his Cessna 140 all the time. Even so, his real goal is to pack a lot of fun into every year, and this year that means flying his new Pietenpol to Brodhead. I had him bring his engine down to our place because I am glad to help him get safely to Brodhead and back. I would not describe him simply as a customer, but I also wouldn't jump to calling him a friend; there is an important distinction here. When dealing with men of my father's generation, I am a little reluctant to elevate myself to the status of being their "friend." While I certainly pal around with them, and it may make no difference to them, most honest people of my generation will freely conceed that men of our fathers' time lived through more challenging circumstances, and nowhere is this more evident than listening to older pilots reflecting on times past. It is this difference that doesn't allow me to think of myself as their equal, no matter how old I get. It is this very point that makes me not care about Gardiner's initial mistaken guess that we didn't torque his engine correctly, nor his sentence about thinking about getting help from a discredited source. If I were a really "Fair" guy, I would hold Gardiner and men of his times to the same standards of accuracy in statements and not mentioning discredited people that I do of younger builders. If I were a real Bhuddist, I wouldn't care what anyone said about anything, but I am not fair in that sense and my pursuit of Bhuddism is limited to occasionally listening to NPR while trying vainly to maintain low blood pressure. Let me honestly suggest that I have a very long track record of getting people flying behind a Corvair, and any of them will gladly tell you that I am an easy guy to work with as long as you put a modest amount of effort into understanding my reasoning and a little effort into making accurate statements about our work. I don't care what you look like, where you're from, how you vote, how thick your wallet is, nor what your faith is or isn't. None of these matter; all that counts is some basic civility, a little character and the desire to work with the information I have painstakingly learned over the past 20 years.

"Real freedom is the sustained act of being an individual." WW - 2009

April 2010 At The Hangar

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December 2006 At The Hangar Part 1

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December 2006 At The Hangar Part 3

December 2006 At The Hangar Part 4

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At The Hangar In April 2006

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At The Hangar In December 2005

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OSH, Illinois and SAA June 13, 2005

At The Hangar June 13, 2005 Part II

At The Hangar In May 2005

At The Hangar In April 2005


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