Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shakedown Cruise: Departing for OKC

As much as we hate to do road trips in Texas (or anywhere in the South, for that matter) when the weather is so miserably hot, the three-day FAA training session at the academy in Oklahoma City seemed a good opportunity to launch the dynamic duo of Phannie and Mae and see exactly what our efforts--and cash--had brought us.  

True, we had driven Phannie and Mae home from Nacogdoches when we completed the purchase, but that didn't count, because we really didn't know what we were doing.  Even though we had had a test drive and a pretty decent PDI, driving Phannie solo was much like trying to fly a new airplane without reading the operating manual and making only one flight around the airport traffic pattern.  I felt pretty uncomfortable fumbling for the myriad of switches and controls; at one point, I accidentally hit the air horn and startled the heck out of both of us.

Once home, I pored over the owner's manuals (there are many of them--for the coach, the chassis, the engine, the transmission, the entertainment systems, the appliances, etc., etc.), and slowly I began to be more comfortable with my knowledge of the systems and operating limitations.  Following that, I drove Phannie to the local Allison transmission and Caterpillar engine shops for some tweaking.  (Warning:  Techno-speak ahead; if you're not into that, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph and a couple that follow it.)  I had the transmission downshift reprogrammed to fifth gear instead of second gear when the engine exhaust brake is engaged.  The automatic downshift to such a low gear seemed entirely too radical for my liking and caused the engine to speed up over 2500 RPM unnecessarily.  The tamer downshift to fifth gear is much more reasonable and, if I need a lower gear, I'll simply select it myself.

At the Cat shop, I had the technicians set the engine computer to soft cruise and latch mode.  Soft cruise allows a gentler automatic throttle control when in cruise, making for smoother speed and power changes when going uphill and downhill.  Latch mode causes the engine exhaust brake, if selected on, to actuate any time the throttle is closed above a certain speed and to disengage whenever the throttle or braking is applied, adding a desirable degree of automation to exhaust brake usage.  After this, I asked the Cat technicians to do a computer download for me, and I learned that that was the first time a download had been done on this engine.  There was a lot of information on the printout, and I was careful to include it in the maintenance record after studying it for a while.  I was happy to learn that the previous owner seems to have taken good care of the engine, as everything looked perfectly normal.  By the way, I learned about these adjustments from reading the Tiffin and Caterpillar forums, and I'm very pleased how useful the information was.  Phannie is now a smooth driving machine with excellent manners and easy power control.

In preparation for the OKC trip, I did my usual check of fluids and filters, washed the windshield and checked the tire pressures.  I made good use of the heavy duty truck tire inflator/guage that I had purchased earlier.  It's the kind that has a forward/backward valve necessary for dual wheel installations.  Fortunately, I already had a 150 psi air compressor, which now couldn't be considered overkill. (End of technospeak.)

Next came the checklists, which I fashioned from note cards and taped to the left driver's console.  If I learned anything from thirty years of flying, it was that checklists are indispensable as a means of self-preservation; those pesky airplane crashes usually don't turn out well.  And, since all sorts of ugly things can happen if a motorhome launches without ensuring all its appendages are tucked in and its systems ready to go, it would be foolish not to use a checklist.  The thought of Phannie's expensive satellite antenna being left up and getting taken out by a tree limb sends chills up my spine and down into my pocketbook.  So, I use a checklist for loading the coach, a pre-driveoff checklist and a checklist for using the leveling system, which is not particularly user friendly.

Homemade Checklist Added

With all the pre-departure stuff done, I backed Phannie with great care out of her snug RV berth and parked at the curb to hook up Mae.  Having previously only observed the dealer's employee hooking up the Blue Ox towbar between Phannie and Mae, I was a little uneasy about performing the process myself, a task that must be done correctly if I indeed want Mae to arrive at the same destination as Phannie.  So, what do you do if you need a quick primer on something?  Bring up YouTube on your computer, of course!  A quick search on "Blue Ox" brought a very informative demonstration video that lasted about five minutes.  Perfect!  Armed with this refresher, I nudged Mae up to the towbars behind Phannie and, in a few minutes, everything was connected and the lights tested, just like on the video.  Is there anything you can't find on the Internet?  What a great time to be alive for information junkies like me!

All Hooked Up!

Next came the final chore before departure:  Making sure Phannie was suitably cool and comfortable when the lady of the manor herself, the lovely and gracious Sandy, made her way out to Phannie and ascended the stairwell to her oh, so comfortable throne--the luxuriously soft leather Flexsteel power recliner that is the copilot's seat.  Knowing that Sandy recoils from summer heat like a vampire from a crucifix, I cranked up Phannie's diesel generator and turned on all three air conditioners to the coldest setting to precool the rig.  It didn't take long for the coach to cool down to a temperature which you would expect in, say, Anchorage.

In due time, when Sandy finished all of her own little rituals in the house, like triple-checking each door lock and closing the shutters, she strode out to what was now about fifty feet of connected rolling stock and climbed aboard.  Feeling the cool air rushing down the stairwell brought a smile, and when she kicked back in the recliner with an iced tea in her hand, I'm pretty sure I heard a contented purr.  Life is good, and we're off to OKC!


  1. sorry but I had to say I kind of skimmed all the engine blah blah..but that is just a woman for the last paragraph..Sandy has you trained well!!..good job!!!!..have a safe journey!!..Phannie and Mae look mighty fine together!! travels to you both!!!

  2. Oh the maiden voyage. There's nothing quite like it. Stay cool.

  3. Have a good safe shakedown cruise. remember any landing you walk away from is a good one.As a helo guy does it hold a good hover at 40 feet. Be safe out there. Sam & Donna...

  4. Sounds like all systems are go for your shakedown cruise & by the sounds of your thoroughness, all should go well. As you probably know, it's these first trips & adventures in something new & unfamiliar, mixed with a bit of fear, anxiety & excitement that will make for those special memories that will last a very long time.

  5. Excellent write-up Mike. You have discovered one of this techno-geeks primary source of power...YouTube!

    For some reason I had visions of Sandy looking somewhat like a frosty popsicle somewhere south of OKC.

    We look forward to a full report of the inagural journey.

    Safe travels!


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