Jolt of Reality

By the time I realized what had happened, I was in the back seat and the airplane was headed straight down.


I have owned my Cessna 195 since 1975. Its a great airplane, with a three-axis autopilot and altitude hold. It is very comfortable for flying between my legal residence in Miami and my private airport business in Pennsylvania.

On one occasion – my logbook tells me it was in 1977 – I had made the arrangements to take the airplane to Smella Aviation at a small airport in New Jersey to have a reluctant cabin heater repaired. Some time prior to this trip I had noticed during a preflight inspection that the top rivet was missing where several heavy panels come together on the left door post assembly. Since the airplane was going to be in maintenance, I added this problem to the list of squawks.

Billy Smella looked at the hole where the missing rivet went, went inside and removed the upholstery panel in front of the main spar carry-through, shook his head and then did the same thing on the other side. He then admonished me not to fly the airplane another minute and showed me the problem.

The 195 has a cantilevered wing and the front spar of each wing is attached to the fuselage, through the respective door posts, with six bolts arranged in vertical parallel columns. With the upholstery removed, the heads of the bolts are visible and in this instance there was a crack in the door post channel from under the heads of the bolts horizontally to the next bolt head. Three cracks in all.

To really appreciate the problem, it should be mentioned that the 195 has only one structural AD. In the early days the wings came off of two airplanes. The AD was a fix and mandated a beefed-up spar carry-through in the cabin. My airplane had the AD fix, but in retrospect you have to wonder whether the problem at hand was also part of the earlier problem, since the only thing holding the wings on the airplane was the clamping action of the bolts.

The aircraft remained at Smella for repair. It was a big task, but I wanted the airplane, so I was hustling them. I brought the airplane home four months later. On the flight home, I was faced with a thunderstorm northwest of my destination and moving southeast, while I was flying southwest on an intercept course.

I could see the storm and was bending my course to the south in an effort to get around the fast-moving cell. Just as I was making the end run, I experienced the single most violent jolt Id ever felt in any airplane.

By the time I realized what had happened, I was in the back seat and the airplane was headed straight down from 3,500 feet toward the river below. I leaned over the front seat back, retarded the throttle and eased back on the yoke. Eventually, the airplane leveled and I was able to climb back into the front seat.

The cabin was a mess. Everything that had been in the back was now in the front, generally winding up wedged under the rudder pedals.

The event cemented in my mind the merit of a thorough and observant preflight. I wondered how I ended up in the back seat, given the limited space between the top of the seat and the spar carry-through.

Most importantly, I didnt miss the point that I hadnt fastened my seatbelt, notwithstanding the fact that a seatbelt check is part of my Before Engine Start Checklist.


Water Under the Bridge
As a 30-year instrument-rated pilot and past CFI, I thought in nearly 4,000 hours I has seen and done it all. Having never scratched an airplane in all these years, I consider myself a fairly cautious pilot, and flying had become routine.

My most recent flight, however, definitely caused me a few anxious moments.

I try not to let two weeks go by without flying, but it had been over a month since I flew last in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where my plane is hangared. We had had about five inches of rain with fog and high humidity, but my highly modified 1962 Comanche 250 had never had a problem with moisture in the tanks. About every two months I check the sumps, but Ive never found water in the fuel.

On a short flight on Saturday – just to blow out some cobwebs – I departed runway 11 and was about 400 feet agl when the graphic engine monitor went flat … and all that entails.

My first thought was, Gear up or down with only muddy vineyards within glide distance?

With the gear up, I set best glide speed of 100 mph. I rechecked wind direction and mentally prepared to put my baby in the mud. I had four tanks to choose from and I selected the right reserve. After a very long eternity, the engine came to life.

I made a normal landing, taxied back to the hangar and found about a quarter cup of water still in my right main sump. The right tank was about half full.

This was the first moisture Id drawn out of my tanks in the 10 years Ive owned the airplane. You can bet Ill routinely check for moisture in future preflights.

From this, I learned not to trust fuel gauges, to always check for moisture in the tanks, to take off and land on the fullest tank, to be aware of moisture in the air and to keep the tanks full when the airplanes parked.

Other lessons to consider: Its easy to slip into a routine when youve owned the same airplane a long time. We suggest you shake up your preflight inspection in other ways as well. Do the inspection backwards from time to time. Challenge a friend to find items youve missed. Use the checklist in the book. You may be surprised at what else youve missed.


Silence. Twice, in Fact
I had filed an IFR flight plan from Lancaster, Pa., to Bradley International in Connecticut. I wanted to avoid the mountains because the weather was not good, but the route I was cleared for wasnt at all what Id filed.

On the first leg, my Mooneys groundspeed was 75-80 knots at 9,000 feet, with an outside temp of -8 C and light snow. When I turned east on the next leg, my groundspeed shot up to 210 knots. About 50 DME west of my destination, everything went silent.

I switched tanks, hit the fuel pump, richened the mixture and called Center to report the engine out. As I descended to 7,000 feet the engine restarted – at which point Center told me to get back up to 9,000 feet. I did, and the engine stopped for the second time. Same procedure, and again it restarted at 7,000 feet, where the outside temperature was +2 C.

I was told there was a field 10 miles to my right. With my high ground speed, my destination was 12 to 15 minutes away and the engine was working fine, so I decided to proceed to my destination.

I stayed cool and performed everything I had been taught. At one point, my wife asked, Are we going to crash? I said, No. We are going to land. There is a difference.

We checked out the fuel lines, filters, ram air, even the four little holes that allow air into the injectors, but we couldnt find any cause for the shutdown.

Since then, everything has been fine. But of course, if ATC had cleared us as filed we would have missed the bad weather entirely.

Other lessons to consider: In your description of the steps you took and the items you checked post-flight, an obvious omission was the use of alternate air. Our first guess would be induction icing, based on the temperatures and the precipitation. The problem could have been cured by pulling alternate air.

Second, if the engine stopped at 9,000 and restarted at 7,000, we would have refused a climb back to 9,000 and let the controller deal with the consequences.


Button Belief
En route to Bend, Ore., from Reno, Nev., in marginal conditions, I found myself in trouble and decided to execute the necessary 180-degree turn. When I completed the turn I was in IMC because the weather had built up behind me.

As is my policy in marginal condition, the autopilot was ready to go. I only had to push the button and the autopilot took over the job of keeping the wings level while I attended to other business.

I was in the clear in less than two minutes and returned to Reno. I obviously pushed too hard because I ended up in IMC, where I had no business being, but I know Im not the only person to have done this.

Other lessons to consider: Good strategy, but we hope you preflight the autopilot – and the autopilot disconnect – when you do your runup checks. Too many pilots dont.


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