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The Through Bolt Award

A large group had gathered for dinner at a favorite restaurant to honor our friend Bob, one of the earliest members of our flying club, who had recently sold his share after more than 40 years of membership. The room was packed. Large quantities of pizza, salad, and wine were consumed, and the hangar talk flowed. As physical appetites were sated, the time was ripe for some more formal storytelling—well, as formal as we get. Anders, our club president, assumed the role of master of ceremonies, laying out the rough plan for the after-dinner activities. He then yielded the floor to our Bonanza's crew chief Hal, who introduced one of the club's epic stories and the pilot, Paul, who in the early 1990's was at the center of it.

"There was a loud bang as the whole airplane shook," said Paul, beginning his tale. He and his wife were departing Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California in our club's A36 Bonanza. Loud bangs of any kind are rarely good news, especially in airplanes, so after a brief moment of denial, and on his wife's urging, Paul decided to return to the airport immediately. He described the experience in detail and his thought processes as he maneuvered the airplane for a landing on the remote runway perched high atop the island, far from civilization.

"I was worried about landing short, so I ended up touching down a bit too fast and farther down the runway than I wanted to, but I managed to get her stopped before we reached the end." After clearing the runway and shutting down the engine, he and his wife opened the cowling. To their horror, they found one of the cylinders all but loose from the crankcase and hanging by a bolt or two. Most of the studs holding the cylinder down had broken and were lying loose in the engine bay. Two of the through bolts that held the crankcase together had shorn completely. It was a miracle that the engine hadn't come apart, but had they continued flying, it certainly would have.

Paul's story held the diners' rapt attention. Most of the people in attendance were pilots themselves or spouses of pilots. Indeed most were present or former members of our flying club and had flown the very airplane that Paul was talking about. The story had become something of a legend in the club, but few of us had ever heard the pilot's account firsthand.

The story was then taken up by Eric, the club's mechanic at the time, who described the extreme measures that he and Hal had taken to retrieve the shredded engine and return it to San Jose, where he spent several weeks rebuilding it. After painstaking planning, he arranged to transport the overhauled engine, along with all the parts and tools he would need, back to Catalina where the airplane still sat. Eric needed to anticipate every contingency, because once he got to the island, he was on his own. He described how he single-handedly installed the engine in several hours' time and began ground testing. This amazed the crowd. Most of us have been involved in hanging engines on airplanes, so the thought of doing it in a single day was boggling, but Eric was a very experienced A&P and IA and knew what he was doing.

At this point, Dave, the club's President at the time, continued the story. He had arrived on Catalina in a friend's Bonanza about the time Eric was finishing up the engine installation.

"Ready to go?" Dave asked Eric.

"Yep," Eric replied.

"OK, let's go," Dave said matter-of-factly. Such was his confidence in Eric's work—especially considering Eric's willingness to get in the airplane himself. For several hours, they made multiple flights, all within gliding distance of the airport, testing the airplane's performance and checking carefully for problems between flights. Finally, they were satisfied that the airplane was ready to cross the channel to the mainland, so they set out for Long Beach, and then on to San Jose.

As Dave wrapped up the tale, he handed it back to Hal, who delivered the moral of the story. Hal pointed out how the episode illustrated the club's hallmark values, including airmanship, mechanical skill, resourcefulness, cooperation, hard work—and fun. In the process, he also explained the genesis of the plaque that had hung on the hangar wall since the events on Catalina. Arrayed on the plaque's surface, in all their gold-spray-painted glory, were the very studs, nuts, and through bolts that had shorn when the engine blew. The coveted Through Bolt Award had been conferred periodically on members deemed worthy of the honor for service to the club above and beyond the call of duty.

Finally, Anders revealed the point of the evening's shaggy dog story when he bequeathed the Through Bolt Award to Bob in perpetuity in recognition of his immeasurable contributions to the club over more than forty years. The crowd shouted their approval as Bob accepted the award with bemused grace.

The pilots in attendance clearly found the evening's proceedings most satisfying. I learned, however, that at least one non-pilot in the crowd was thinking thoughts more along these lines:

"Are you people nuts?!"

More about that next week…

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