Three Rules


We never know when an in-flight emergency might occur, and if you are lucky you might fly your entire life without encountering one. Nevertheless, the three rules of handling an emergency-aviate, navigate, communicate-should always be at the forefront should things begin to go wrong. Recently, I had the unfortunate opportunity to put this mantra to the test.


My father-who has a Commercial certificate and over 3000 hours-and I took off from the Fullerton (Calif.) Airport headed to Oklahoma City in my 1976 Piper Warrior. I was PIC, with my relatively new Private and only 150 hours of logged time.

We were still talking to Socal Approach, level at 7500 feet, when my father commented on how well the flight was going. I noticed the EGT seemed a little low, so I pulled back on the lever. As I did, the engine immediately began running very rough. Moving the mixture had no effect; I reduced power to approximately 2000 rpm; any other power setting resulted in too much vibration.

We immediately went into emergency mode, looking for other possibilities: carburetor heat on, electric fuel pump on, switched fuel tanks, checked the gauges. Nothing had an effect on the engine operation.

In the midst of all this, I shifted to “navigate” and pressed the “Nearest” button on the GPS, which directed us to the Ramona Airport 12 nm away. I pointed the nose in that direction.

It was time to “communicate.” Socal Approach noticed my heading change and inquired of my intentions. I reported I had developed a rough engine and was working the problem. I declined their offer of declaring an emergency; they responded with a vector to Ramona and told the tower there we were coming.

My father and I discussed options. Our greatest concern was the vibration, and the possibility that the engine might shake itself off of its mounts. I elected to descend toward Ramona, staying with the 2000 rpm setting. We reached the airport, circling down over midfield to pattern altitude. I kept my pattern close and slipped the remaining 500 feet to reduce airspeed and set up the approach. Fortunately, Ramona has a long runway. I throttled back as I crossed the threshold still doing about 80 knots and set down the Warrior.

We taxied to the FBO and an A&P came out to a look at the engine. He immediately noticed oil leaking from the #3 cylinder. After removing a spark plug, we could tell part of a valve had been bouncing around inside, pitting the top of the piston and the piston walls. My Warrior would not be going anywhere soon.

In researching this failure, I found several similar instances. In almost all cases, the trip ended like mine did. In one case, the occupants died following a forced landing into the Everglades. They did most things right, but I wonder if they forgot the first of the three rules.


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