Although you'd never guess it from their names, Jean-Francois Boudet is French and Premysl Sedivy is Czech. They're both EFIS customers of mine and both were having difficulties with the electrical systems of their Fascination aircraft. So, off I go to Prague to Czech it all out ...

Atlanta to Prague
A quick hop on Brit to London, a delightful 12 hour layover, and I find myself in Prague. Prava (Prague for us) is everything you need to know about the Czech Republic: part old Soviet concrete, part modern innovation, part beautiful past. Just walk the streets and you'll see a thousand years of history alongside skateboarding punks with iPhones. It's worth seeing, and I spent one night there before zooming off to the south. I liked Prague. It's a place you can hang out and wander around. It's got a real pulse to it too, kind of a Paris in the East, but that's not what this story is about. It's not about beer either, but ...

This Bud's For You
Cesky Budovice is the name of a town known, like Plnz up the road, for beer. Pilsener is the style of beer first brewed here in Plnz. Budovice (say Bood-o-VYTZ-e) is home of, you guessed it, Budweiser. The Czechs make a damn good beer, and lemme tell you the stuff THEY call Budvar is a one helluva long airplane ride and half a world away from the piss-of-the-weasel we drink in cans. It's damn good, and I don't even like beer. But despite what nearly everyone will try to tell you, I'm not likely to fly a quarter of the way around the world just to have a Tasty Beverage. I had a job to do. I'm a man on a mission. There's an old MIG base in Cesky Budovice and that's where we'll be working, in a converted Cold War era hangar that used to hold a MIG fighter. SWEET.

This bud's for you, comrade

The Soviet Oscilloscope and Stalin's Hangar
I'd never met Predmysl, and he showed up looking more like a hacker than a banker. He trades currencies, securities, and works in a bank, but the guy's a Dude. Like me or Ross, except special-ordered in Czech. He hacks computers, screws around with airplanes and showed up with some truly impressive triple shielded cable from some kind of video hardware. The RPM indication on his Rotax was unstable above 3000 RPM, and he was positively skunked. Now, the Rotax magneto system generates enough noise to be effective as an ECM platform, and I thought that was the basis of what was driving him nuts. More RPM, more magneto hash, less useful RPM readings. All I needed was a good 'scope to know for sure ...

So, Predmysl talked with his airplane buds, but I have no idea what he said. Czech sounds very little like German and a whole lot like Russian, and I couldn't pick out a single word I knew. Must be what's it like for a Liberal Arts major to sit in one of my lectures, but a few hours later, one of my Czech EE- brothers shows up with a genuine Cold War relic wiggle scope:

Finest in all of East Germany!

SWEET! Joe Stalin probably had one of these on the bench in his basement, and no telling how many MIG radars this old 'scope had tuned up. Speaking of MIGs, check out this East Bloc groove on this hangar:

The hidden hangar
A little closer
Gimme a hand with the door, willya?

Reinforced concrete arcs bolted together quonset hut style, covered in earth and planted with trees. They're all but invisible and could take a direct hit from a 500 kilogram bomb, they said. I believe it. Some poor guy probably had to try it and see. Check out the monster concrete doors, and the old steel signs reminding you how to preflight your fighter to repel the invading hordes of, well, I guess that wold have been us at the time.

Spin 'em up Ivan!
Preflight detail
Preflight detail

This one really hit home -- in case of Emergency, here's what to do.

Here they come!

BTW: If anyone can translate these, I'd love to hear from you! Jean-Francois (we call him JF) speaks some Czech, but not enough to read this stuff and the guys who could read it didn't speak English, German or French. Hey, we tried, you know?

So:

With Uncle Joe's oscilloscope and a cadre of very curious Czech mechanics, I watched three volts of noise confuse Predmysl's RPM circuit. A trip to the local Radioshackski produced a trimpot, and I dialed the noise floor on the comparator up to 4.00 volts. Problem solved and happy pilot on deck. Pretty airplanes, horrible electrics. Just as a reference, half a volt of common-mode hash is HORRIBLE. Three volts may be a new world record ...

Now:

The local Radioshackski is the local electron-pushers palace. Reminded me of Delta Electronics in Atlanta, or S&R in New York: piles of parts, drawers full of new stuff, piles of old stuff, and a guy behind the counter who knows the difference between a MOSFET and an IGBT. JF was a little concerned since although his grasp of English is really a lot better than he thinks it is, his grasp of technical Czech is pretty shaky. Our driver didn't speak English or French, and neither did the guys at the shop. Lucky for me the phrase "DSUB, 9 pin, female" is exactly that in Czech. I maintained that was the case since we arrogant Americans invented everything worth having since, say, 1960 while Jean-Francois was convinced that (whatever it was) it was first done in France, and we simply copied it like the Wright Brothers who ripped off Bleriot who flew _first_ as if there was any question. We just had better advertising, he said. Our conversation ranged from Jose Bove and McDonalds through why Canard aircraft are French too (Canard is Duck) and all the parts of the airplane are French (aileron, fuselage, empennage), but all the electronic systems are American (Radar, VOR, GPS), and found ourselves generally in wild agreement and somewhat amused. Since I don't own a TV, won't eat at McDonalds, think two hours for lunch with wine is _civilized_, and have a taste for foie gras, Absinthe and good bread I'm nearly an honorary Frenchman anyway.

Suffice it to say that Czech for MOSFET is MOSFET and buying electronic parts is a lot easier than getting directions. In the end we ended up laughing a lot and me drawing the schematic symbols for what I needed. "Ah, 250k pot" the guy says. When he brings one and I indicate smaller, he asks "Trimmer pot?" and produces Le Trimmer, as I'm sure they say in Paris. I asked for a ceramic disk capacitor and got one, although the European affectation for nano-Farads threw me for a sec. This was all Big Fun and I loved every minute of it. Wandering down 12th century cobblestone streets with a bag full of electronic goodies and what I suppose is called Le Shrink Tube. Yo, this ROCKS.

Brief aside: Yo is Czech slang for yes or yeah, and made it's way into American idiom during the second world war. Yo, Yo is like Si, Si in Italian, our "Yeah, man, chill a sec."

Back to the story:

JF's airplane was wired poorly enough that it wasn't (in my opinion) close to airworthy, so we had a lot of work to do. The 12 volts showing on the battery dropped to 8.6 at the autopilot controller causing it to scream audibly as the switching supply failed to spin straw into gold. The breakers were a soldered (!) together, everything corroding from the use of plumber's pipe flux (!) and, most importantly, the leads were so scary-small that we dropped almost four volts in three feet of cable. Oh my sweet baby James ... Jean-Francois was not so pleased, and a mechanic was summoned to appear tomorrow morning to do whatever the Crazy American wants. Once I'd fixed Premysyl's spooky-weird RPM issue, my stock was selling at a premium so I got volunteered to fix the electronic propeller controller (Czech word: Konstantspeed) that had them skunked. You could read it on their faces: let's see the smarmy bastard make THIS thing work.

The Pro's From Dover are back on the case! Soviet oscilloscope in one hand, 200W board-torching 240 volt Czech soldering gun in the other, all I needed was a cape and Fedora. Tomorrow, we'll throw down with this thing, but I'd had about enough for the day, so it was time to go to the castle.

The Castle

Cesky Krumlov
Old school wall - Cesky Krumlov

This is Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO-recognized historic site with a really cool town square to wander around in, killer restaurants, shops, romantic bridges to gaze off of and castles. Castles? Yeah we got castles ... The streets are all too small for anything but foot traffic, or maybe horsecarts. Think fifteenth century: All Medieval, All The Time. It's charming, delightful, and full of Japanese tourists packing serious optical firepower. After a wonderful dinner of roast pork stuffed with eggs, bacon and cheese, red cabbage, potato pancakes and vegetables all washed down with a half liter of dark, dark beer (Greg goes native), we crashed hard on our funky Czech beds.

Bed in Czech Penzion

The Czechs don't go in for the whole sheets-and-blanket thing we do in the US. The pillows are LARGE and flat and you sleep between two blankets. Works well for a cold climate, and was actually a nice change. The bed was more futon than Western springs-and-mattress thing, and was really quite comfortable. Reminded me on my college days. The place where we stayed was a Penzion, a Bed and Breakfast kinda place. Breakfast was good, and the bread really _is_ something to write home about. See? I'm doing it now.

The Evil Ground, Redux
Next morning, I went for a ground loop. Not in the plane, but in the plane's electrical system. After all my ranting about grounds, ground loops and "just use two wires already!" there's always some guys who don't get the word. JF's airplane had a collection of ground terminals, busses and bolts that would take a team of cryptographers to unravel. I elected to just upsize the leads to the avionics buss to #12 from the #20 they were both to avoid voltage drop and potential for fire, and upsize the ground leads to the autopilot and EFIS to make sure.

The shop has great mechanics, but horrible electricians. This autopilot installation is the absolute best work I've ever seen. The nasty, gobblety soldering mess of a breaker buss some of the worst.

Autopilot pitch servo installation
Nasty spaghetti wiring

Changing the lead sizes and moving the prop controller leads to a single ground buss, stabilized the EFIS, fixed the autopilot (which now had 11.88 volts instead of 8.6 to work with) and now the prop controller worked. The Czech mechanics do very good, craftsman-like work, and their technique is good (most of them) but the guys at this company need leadership; someone to organize the work. They know how to do, but not what to do, and it warmed my engineer's heart that having taught just a little, the techs picked up fast how to work the "American Way" with lower heat, no plumbers flux, washing the joints, shrink tube, etc. No wonder they hate us in Europe.

Current score: Smarmy Bastard 1, Buggered Airplane 0

The Manifold Pressure was connected to the Static system which was wack enough to be funny, and the RPM interface was still installed comfortably in the box it came in. The engine pod, designed to live on the firewall for ease of maintenance, was installed instead behind the panel with no access at all, which is why it took two hours to connect the three wires for the RPM interface and hookup the Manifold Pressure tube. Now it all worked, though.

Smarmy Bastard 2, Much Less Buggered Airplane, 0.

The magnetometer, which senses magnetic flux of the earth and forms a beautiful 3D compass, was mounted in the floor next to the STEEL parachute cables and was at an angle that was not very close to being on the Level, as we Masons say. One of the really good Czech mechanics fabricated a fiberglass plate and mounted it as I requested in the tail and without the steel bolts they wanted to use. Steel is a bit of a problem for magnetic sensors. Previously, they never could get heading to read within 20 degrees of truth, and now it reads so close to perfect JF wants to correct his other compass to match! No compensation required, perfect right out of the box nearly to 1 degree, as best we could measure it.

Smarmy Bastard: Game, set and match. Airplane: Just about fixed.

JF and I taxied out, me in left seat and him in the right checking the compass (perfect) the GPS (perfect), the RPM (perfect) and the Fuel Flow which needed a bit more damping. A call to Ross got a software tweak done, and that was that on the Fuel Flow. The software hack was not an easy thing to get, since the Penzion (sort of hotel/restaurant/guesthouse) where we were staying had no Internet and, amazingly enough, no working phone. We finally climbed the control tower, another Soviet relic, and met the very sweet controller lady who insisted on us having coffee and some of the coconut cake she'd made. We did, of course, the cake being very nearly a confection with condensed milk and coconut which I absolutely loved. She spoke quite good English, and she and JF discovered that they were both Captains in their respective Air Forces. Her job was to get the MIG-21s off the ground to intercept JF in his Mirage along with his NATO buddies in their Tornados and Tomcats. Times change, of course, and now we're all sitting in the same tower (a Soviet design for the arctic, of all things) talking homebuilts and microlights, drinking coffee and bullshitting. If the rest of the world would get along as well as the pilots, we'd be in a much better place.

Day two came to an end with another great dinner with another great beer, and some wandering about taking pictures like these:

Roadside
Prague
The Evil Empire

This is work. I am on a business trip and I am working. I worked on airplanes all day. I am not just cruising around the Czech countryside tasting things, drinking dark beer, hanging with ex-fighter jocks and cold war forward air controllers, looking at glass and antiquities and trying to learn jokes in French. I'm working. This is work. Some days, you know, I just love my job.

Day three came to a close with everything working but the autopilot disconnect, which we couldn't solder in the high density connector with the soldering iron they had. Probably made for bodywork, or something. It was HUGE, and melted everything it touched. I loaded up my bags into the plane, and JF dug out the charts and frequencies so we could fly to Prague. Except ... The radio didn't work. I added a counterpoise to the whip antenna (which is made for metal planes) and that worked a treat. Later when the airplane rolled off the ramp and into the grass snapping off said antenna, they replaced it and broke the BNC connector. Not so good, and never tested. So, instead of a 50 minute flight to Prague, we get to drive two hours. After three days and going from nothing working to good to go and ready to fly, JF is close to homicidal and I considered helping him. How can you screw up putting on a BNC? I think they used gas pliers ... We leave the plane in the hands of the mechanics who vow to find a BNC connector somewhere, and have it ready to fly tomorrow. They might even test it, they said. Argh!

Back to Prague
My last night in-country was spent at the Tranzit Hotel near the Prague airport. Not as interesting as the Penzion in Ceski Krumlov, but only 100 meters from Terminal 1. JF knew this funky underground joint we tried for dinner, and after the frustrating days with the airplane it seemed appropriate:

Hell's menu

Dinner in Hell? Sure. Not too shabby, although the foie gras with plum sauce and almonds was a little gnarly. Turns out both JF and I are food snobs, him in the French way me in the American. I was wearing my Absinthe - Le Fey Verte shirt, so the waiter thought I was French. We immediately corrected him as to who was the French pilot and who was the American engineer. We told him backward, of course. Here's a few shots of the Hell Restaurant, deep underground in a 12th century cavern that was once a wine cellar.

Dinner in the catacombs
Hell's bar

See that big green spooky-looking bottle? THAT stuff is Becherovka, the Czech answer to both Absinthe and Calvados, an herbal-bitters kind of preparation that you either love or hate. They mix it sometimes with tonic for Beton, which is Czech for Concrete! I believe it. No matter where I go in the world, there's always some local version of "Drink this, dude, it'll kick your ass" and I always have to try it and see. I admit the taste took some acquiring but, like Benedictine, once you get used to the odd flavor it really is quite good. This had nothing to do with our run-in with the Prague police, with whom we simply differed on the theory of appropriate vs. inappropriate places to park.

JF gets busted
Oh shit, dude!

After squaring up with the local Five-O, JF had to haul back to Ceski Krumlov, and I slept like a lost anchor thanks to a bottle of Czech wine and that Becherovka stuff. The car we hauled around in is a Skoda, which is yet another Czech joke. Not the car, which is a very nice variant of the Volkwagen Passat. Outfitted with a very smooth Diesel engine, it got nearly 50 MPG. Take that Detroit! The joke is that "Skoda" also means Pity in Czech. As in "Pity I can't afford Mercedes" as they say. These guys are FUNNY.

Skoda Diesel

Next morning, my ride to the airport turned up a bit of Prague-style road rage as the hotel bus driver ran a guy off the road in the round-about and nearly crashed us as well. The other driver gave chase to the airport and, even with the shaky grasp of my maybe 20 words of Czech, it was clear my driver was about to get his ass kicked in a thoroughly craftsman-like manner. He talked his way out of it, barely, and with appropriate apologies and a very red face, the driver dropped me off and I eventually made it on the Brit flight back into Heathrow, thence to the US flight from Gatwick, an expensive hour's cab ride away. There's always something, huh?

It was good to get back to Atlanta and I smiled and thought how things have changed in the world and what it means to be able to travel so freely to places Americans couldn't go at all. While working in Czech I met two other MIG drivers, a retired General who flew the MIG-21 and an older gentleman that flew the MIG-17. Both expansive, happy people who love fly. I find them wherever I go ... JF explained that he flew the French Mirage for the opposing team, but "He is not fighter anymore." The General smiled and said "None of us are fighters now", which is as it should be. We're more Builders and Seekers these days. The luckiest of us are Finders, too.

Copyright @ 2008 Greg Richter / IFR Music