Biggles' mental breakdown
11 July 2019 | Belfast, Maine
I have been told by a retired commercial airline Captain that aircraft autopilots are traditionally christened 'Nigel' by the crew. The tendency to give names to items of equipment also applies to boat crews, especially when the items concerned perform crewing functions. Autopilots and windvanes certainly do that by taking care of the tedious and sometimes arduous work of steering the boat in a direction of the crews' choosing, allowing the crew to perform other vital functions when underway such as snoozing, contemplating the wonders of the universe and eating cake. They do this without tiring and without complaint, sometimes for days or even weeks on end - that is the windvane or autopilot steering the boat, not the crew eating cake.
In our previous boat, Montaraz, the windvane steering was given various names, ranging from some that can't be used in refined company when it played silly b.....s, to the favourites 'The Red Baron' and the less formal 'Hermann', both of which reflected its national origin. 'Hermann' needs no explanation, it was just a name, but 'The Red Baron' perhaps justifies something by way of explanation, especially for some younger blog followers. The Red Baron was the nickname given to Manfred von Richthofen, the most successful World War 1 German fighter pilot ace; a superb aviator, a great patriot and a fearless combatant who accrued an unparalleled string of air victories before his loss in action not long before the end of the Great War.
'Biggles', or James Bigglesworth, was a fictional contemporary of von Richthofen, and the flying ace hero of a long series of novels aimed at young boys of the time like me. Written by W.E. Johns, new books in the series were eagerly awaited and then feverishly consumed in the manner of the Harry Potter books which they pre-dated by several decades. In retrospect I believe the Biggles novels contributed in no small part to development of my reading skills, which I well remember needed all the help they could get. I am forever grateful that my state primary school library was never slow in acquiring copies of new releases. So, at least for the purposes of this blog post, let us refer to Kiviuq's electric/hydraulic autopilot as 'Biggles'.
As of my last post we were pretty sure we had identified the cause of Biggles' breakdown. The prime suspect was the resistive rudder feedback unit, a sensing device used by Biggles to determine the position of the rudder relative to the centred position. The data provided by the unit are a key factor in Biggles' decision-making when he determines which way, and to what extent, he needs to steer the boat to obey the system's electronic commands. Failure of the feedback unit was a very plausible cause of Biggles' apparent catastrophic mental breakdown, especially after an hydraulic airlock was all but ruled out. But, eventually, Marilou and I did what perhaps should have been done earlier, and checked the electrical integrity of the coil in the feedback unit that varies the voltage sensed by Biggles, and which is rudder position dependent. With the aid of our Fluke resistance meter, and multimeters don't come any better than Flukes, we quickly determined that the coil was functioning normally.
This finding shifted suspicion onto Biggles' brain. Had Biggles suffered a stroke, or was he in a continuing epileptic state? If the former, therapy would be fiendishly difficult at best and could have easily necessitated a total brain transplant; a complicated and costly undertaking even if a compatible brain were still available. If the latter, an ongoing epileptic state, might it respond to shock therapy? With nothing to lose at this point, and with some invaluable guidance from a retired B&G engineer in Florida, we decided to go for it. Biggles underwent a total electronic reset. Signs of recovery were rapid, excitement and optimism grew, and a dockside test of function revealed no fault.
A dockside test needs to be followed up with a sea trial to re-programme a number of parameters, such as the rudder midpoint, rudder gain, rate of turn, etc.. So it was that yesterday morning saw Kiviuq out on a sunlit, placid sea in Penobscot Bay making some very strange and unpredictable manoeuvres. Reprogramming was completed in an hour or so, and subsequent testing suggested Biggles had made a full recovery. It was a happy ship that docked again in the Front Street Shipyard in good time for coffee and lunch.
Before the sea trial we had already ordered a replacement rudder feedback unit, and this will be kept among our collection of spares. It could be needed one of these days. In the meantime we hope that our Biggles will survive and excel when the action hots up, and justify his naming after the wonderful hero of my boyhood.