Last year, my wife and I were flying our newly acquired Piper Cherokee 235 cross-country from Virginia to Oregon, where we planned to help my parents celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
After dodging late-summer thunderstorms over Indiana and enjoying big, thick steaks in Grand Island, Neb., we departed for our next refueling stop in Rock Springs, Wyo. We climbed to 10,000 feet and cruised IFR above a low cloud deck. On the airway between North Platte and Scottsbluff, I noticed the oil pressure was beginning to fluctuate slightly.
The big Lycoming O-540 was roaring along and hadnt missed a beat, and the oil temperature was steady and in the green. A few miles later, the fluctuations in oil pressure became more pronounced, and the needle finally settled into the yellow and headed for zero. Still, the engine itself hadnt missed a beat, the oil temperature was steady, and no oil was visible on the cowling or the windshield.
I considered the possibility of a gauge failure but also knew that engine failure could be only a matter of time. I punched the Emergency button on the GPS, which told me that the nearest airport was 15 miles behind us. Scottsbluff, a major airport with a maintenance shop, was 50 miles ahead. For a moment, I debated what to do. Should I fly on and try to make Scottsbluff, or land quickly at the nearest airport?
We were IFR above a solid cloud layer that I would have to descend through to reach either airport. Scottsbluff undoubtedly had the better instrument approach. Ironically, it was the then-recent Swissair crash in maritime Canada that helped me decide what to do. I recalled that the pilots had been faulted for circling to dump fuel before landing, rather than putting the airplane on the ground as quickly as possible at the first sign of trouble. That convinced me to land first and ask questions later.
I called Denver Center, explained my problem and declared an emergency. The Center controller gave me a vector for the airport 15 miles behind me. I made a 180-degree turn and started down. Meanwhile, my wife dug out the instrument approach plate for Oshkosh, Neb. The only available procedure at Oshkosh turned out to be an NDB approach, and I cursed myself for not taking this type of approach more seriously and maintaining my proficiency. As it turned out, we broke out of the clouds soon enough that I didnt have to fly the full approach.
The engine was still running and putting out what seemed like normal power as we made our approach to the small field at Oshkosh. As soon as we landed and taxied to the ramp, the sheriff and his deputies arrived in force, having been alerted by Denver Center. I shut down the engine, assured the sheriff we were OK and climbed out to look for the cause of our oil pressure problem.
There was no evidence of oil leakage, and the dipstick confirmed that all of our engine oil was still on board. Although Oshkosh did not have any maintenance facility, we had come down only a few miles from an award-winning FBO at the Ogallala airport. The owner and a mechanic flew over and inspected our airplane that afternoon. They verified that the problem was not in the gauge and set about troubleshooting. Their findings sent a chill up my spine.
Before we left Virginia, I was aware that the high-time engine was beginning to make metal. Oil analysis showed a high aluminum reading and Id found small metal chips in the oil screen. In retrospect, I should have heeded those warning signs. When the mechanics in Nebraska removed the oil pressure screen, they found it completely choked with metal flakes. So much metal was present the screen had actually split open.
They surmised that one of the crankshaft bearings had disintegrated and catastrophic engine failure was imminent when we landed. Although Id done the right thing in landing at the first sign of engine trouble, I clearly had been foolish to embark on a long cross-country flight in IFR conditions with an engine that was making metal. I hesitate to think what might have happened if our engine had waited a few hundred miles to show the same signs – when we were over the spine of the Rocky Mountains on the Utah/Wyoming border.
This unnecessary risk could have been avoided if I had simply heeded the warning signals that my engine was sending, especially when they were so plain to see. Ill certainly never again embark on a long cross-country in IFR unless I have full confidence in the health of my airplane, especially the engine.
Weather, Fuel Conspire to Cut Options
We departed from the Brookhaven, Long Island, airport for an early afternoon flight to Block Island. The weather forecast was good, calling for no significant weather problems throughout the day and into the evening. Upon arrival on Block Island, I noticed a few low coastal clouds in the vicinity of the airport. I briefly considered aborting the landing and returning to Brookhaven, but the weather was good otherwise, and the airport was unobstructed by the clouds. I suppose that I did not want to disappoint my passenger either.
We landed uneventfully and spent a pleasant afternoon walking around the Island. When the time came to go home, I called the FSS from the airport and was advised that no significant weather should be expected during my return flight.
Since the aircraft had been fully fueled when we left Brookhaven for the one-hour leg, I did not think it necessary to refuel before the return flight. We took off in what looked like perfect weather. I called New York Approach and was granted flight following over the water.
About 20 minutes into the flight, I dialed in the Long Island McArthur Islip ATIS and got a wakeup call. The weather at Islip, about 20 miles west of Brookhaven, was 400 broken to overcast, with a visibility of about two miles. I looked below and saw a thickening layer of coastal clouds rapidly rolling inland. Literally within minutes we could no longer see the ground. Meanwhile, a small pandemonium was breaking out on the approach frequency, as every aircraft approaching Islip was trying to get an IFR clearance. I advised ATC that I wanted one as well and was instructed to contact the FSS.
I filed an IFR flight plan with the FSS, requesting an ILS approach into Brookhaven. When I switched back to ATC, my clearance was: direct Calverton VOR and hold. I figured that I could probably afford about 20 minutes in a holding pattern.
Meanwhile, day gave way to night. If I was not so disturbed by our predicament, the view would have been pretty. A full moon night, with a cloud deck thin enough to see Long Island villages as big circles of light shining through the clouds. After 20 minutes of holding, I was vectored for an ILS approach to Brookhaven.
We flew the approach and saw nothing but thick cloud. I flew the missed approach. In a slightly worried voice, the controller inquired about my intentions. I looked north and saw lights of the Connecticut coast. I advised ATC that I would proceed VFR to New Haven.
We arrived at New Haven airport uneventfully. While I was taxiing, the tower asked me if I saw any low clouds on my way in. I replied that the weather was clear.
About 30 minutes later, the dense fog rolled in and closed the New Haven airport. It did not reopen until about 11 am the next day. My experience that night was accurately summed up by a fellow who refueled my airplane. He gave me a bit of a look and said, She was quite thirsty.
I estimated that we had approximately 30 minutes of usable fuel when we landed at New Haven. Had the weather deteriorated a bit earlier, we probably would not have had enough fuel left to fly inland and find a safe place to land.
I do not believe I acted negligently, and yet I came pretty close to putting both myself and my passenger in serious jeopardy. As a result of my experience, I became something of a mildly obsessive refueler. In my book, there is no such thing as too much fuel on board.
I came to believe that one of the most dangerous aspects of single engine IFR operation is the relatively short range of such aircraft. Even with one or two hours of fuel on board, it may be impossible to fly out of bad weather in widespread IFR conditions. Consequently, I tend to postpone my flight, unless I can find an alternate with a forecast of at least MVFR. Finally, beware of the coastal weather.
Topped Off With Trouble
As a recently soloed student, I was preflighting a rental Tomahawk. The fuel in the left wing tank was blue, as expected, and free of water. On testing the right side, the fuel appeared colorless all the way to the top of the cylinder. I had seen small quantities of water in the tester previously, but never a whole tube full, so I thought I was mistaken. Ten tubes later I was still getting colorless fluid and went into the FBO office to find an experienced pilot. He confirmed that the fluid was water, with no gasoline smell, and told me to inform the mechanic. The real pilot also took off the fuel cap and pointed out to me the little droplets of water in the bottom of the tank, which I had overlooked before. You dont see what you are not looking for.
The mechanic subsequently drained a quart of water from the tank and found the rubber gasket on the fuel cap was split. It had rained the night before, and the dihedral of the wing apparently funneled water into the split gasket and right into the tank.
Had I taken off with the left tank, then switched to the right in flight, the water would have filled the fuel line and carburetor, and I would have had an abrupt engine failure, with no chance of a restart. I thought careful preflight checks are important. Now, I really know it.
Total Eclipse of the Smarts
On a rainy Saturday morning last August I spent an hour flying my Mooney 201 back to Rotterdam from my engineers in Belgium where it had just undergone its 100-hour check. I then checked out another pilot on an IFR cross-country, the return flight lasting two hours. Upon pulling the aircraft into the hangar, I noticed a few drops of oil on the ground which, because of the rain, had not been visible when it was parked outside.
I stuck some cardboard under the aircraft and decided to come back the next morning for a thorough check since, later that week, I was scheduled to take my wife and kids to France to watch the solar eclipse. Better safe than sorry.
On Sunday morning,the oil spot on the cardboard had grown. More important, the dipstick showed that the Mooney had used two quarts in three hours. I whipped out my phone and rang my Belgian engineer immediately.
Probably old oil thats got between the skin, he said. But that doesnt explain the excessive oil burn, I replied. He suggested, and I agreed, that if I flew it down to him, hed look at it on a Sunday as a special favor. I topped the oil, filed an IFR plan and did the usual preflight checks. The run-up was normal. I was feeling virtuous, playing it safe. It had been 27 years since I have had an engine failure.
Climbing through 5,000 feet for 9,000 about eight miles from the airport, the pitch went fine, the prop started vibrating severely and the oil pressure needle fell precipitously. I shut down my only engine and declared an emergency.
I didnt make it back to my home field because of some rather indirect radar vectoring. Instead I broke out at 2,500 feet and found a field where I landed safely with only slight damage to the farmers potatoes. But pulling the prop through after landing, I had the distinct impression the compression was gone on most cylinders. Looking at the dipstick, it appeared the aircraft had vented six quarts in as many minutes shortly after takeoff.
I rang my engineer. Dont touch anything, he said. Ill drive up with a designated inspector (who had signed off the 100-hour check) and well sort it out.
As it turned out, the oil had vented via a break in the dry vacuum pump gasket. I usually have my vacuum pump replaced at its TBO of 500 hours, and my mechanic may have improperly torqued it when he installed it. I have taken him to court but may lose because I elected to fly the aircraft after spotting the oil leak.
Dont fly an aircraft if there is oil underneath the fuselage until you know precisely why its there and where it came from.
If you have an emergency, tell ATC the full story. I told Amsterdam Id lost an engine. Here in the EU, there are so few singles in the IFR system that the controller, thinking me a twin, vectored me back toward the Rotterdam ILS.
Have an independent party inspect the aircraft if something goes wrong. Nobody will ever know whether the vac pump mounting was properly torqued by my engineer because he was the first person to inspect the aircraft.
Finally, I have scrapped my precautionary replacement policy. If it aint broke, dont fix it. I have a back-up electric horizon anyway. Replacing a good vac pump turned out to be far more costly than running it until it died of natural causes.
I fly the North Sea back and forth to the UK quite a lot, winter and summer, day and night. Good planning and sensible investment in systems redundancy are the key to safe IFR ops, but caution is the ultimate insurance.