Never Again

Sole responsibility

July 1, 2003

It was a sparkling-clear late summer day, and from Flight Level 240 you could see almost forever. I felt literally on top of the world. The Piper Malibu wasn't new even when we bought it four months earlier, but the experience was still very new to me — flying in the flight levels, being able to see for a hundred miles and more. My wife was quietly sleeping, as usual, without a headset.

We were on our way home from a weekend in Boston where we visited our children and our newborn first grandchild. High above Lake Erie, I could already make out the topography, if not the actual skyline, of our home base in Detroit. The GPS told me it was only four minutes until the start of our descent. Life could not have been better.

Suddenly, I noticed in my peripheral vision a rapid needle movement. I looked down, and in shock watched the manifold pressure gauge fall right down to zero. I stared, stupefied and unmoving, hoping for the bad dream to pass. But as the gauge sat there on zero, my rational mind grabbed hold and I began to take control of the situation.

I hold a commercial rating for gliders as well as airplanes, and I told myself that at worst I would be flying a glider. I pay good money to do that on purpose, so why panic now?

Although we were over the middle of Lake Erie, we had altitude to spare for safely gliding to any number of airports. So I ran a mental checklist of things that could possibly be killers. Hypoxia was the one thing likely to cause serious problems. Immediately I grabbed the emergency oxygen mask under the passenger seat and put it on. There was a lot still to do, and the cabin would only leak down anyhow, so I did not take the time to get a mask onto my nonpilot wife. That could come later.

After establishing best-glide speed and trimming the airplane, I declared an emergency. Although we were closer to the Canadian shore, Cleveland Center controls the airspace, and I let them know we had lost power and would be descending, but that it appeared we had ample altitude to safely reach London, Ontario. I even took a moment to smile at the speed with which Cleveland handed me (and all my problems) over to Toronto Center.

As I began to dial up the Toronto frequency, I had a disquieting feeling that something else was wrong. The emergency oxygen system in a Malibu consists of a chemical oxygen-generating canister. There is no flow meter, and I knew from my glider training that there is no way to really tell whether oxygen is flowing in such a system. It felt wrong, and hypoxia was my biggest worry, so I pulled off the mask and put on the passenger mask. I decided to sacrifice excess altitude for the assurance of adequate oxygen, and told Toronto that I would execute an emergency descent to 12,000 feet.

The emergency descent procedure in the Malibu is to extend the gear and descend at maximum speed. This produces a dramatic deck angle and a descent rate of about 4,000 feet per minute. We were down to 12,000 feet in a flash, and I took off the oxygen mask. The manifold pressure came up, clearly indicating a turbocharger failure. The good news was that we now had power; the bad news was that turbo failure almost always means a rupture in the oil system, so I began to monitor temperatures closely. I kept the power very low, but still the temperatures began to creep up, and pretty soon it was clear that I needed to shut down or sacrifice the engine. I elected to shut down.

That made St. Thomas, Ontario, the logical landing spot. It was 15 nm closer to the shoreline than London, and although our altitude was still good, it would have been foolish to fly farther than required. This prompted a rather amusing exchange with Toronto Approach, with whom I was now talking. I told them we were changing our destination to St. Thomas, and after a couple of minutes they came back and said, "St. Thomas is not an airport of entry; we would prefer that you land at London." I did not want a lot of conversation on that point, and responded, "Perhaps you do not understand. The engine we have lost is our only engine." With that on tape they hurriedly suggested that we land at any airport we desired.

The landing at St. Thomas was uneventful. We had enough altitude to circle a couple of times and land with enough energy to coast off the runway and almost up to the ramp. I opened up the door, and stepped proudly out in front of the crowd that had gathered — a pilot who had mastered an emergency. That is, until my wife got my attention.

"Everything was smooth until suddenly I saw you get all agitated, and I knew something was wrong," she said. "I saw you fidgeting with all sorts of controls, and then you grabbed an oxygen mask. I wanted to know what was going on, but figured I had better let you deal with the emergency first. I expected you to give me a mask as well, but then you put on my mask, too. Suddenly a view of the lake filled our windshield, and we were diving straight down. Then I knew we were going to die, and I asked, 'Why today?' Then I thought, 'Why not today?' and began to make my peace. Well, we didn't die, and a few minutes later you were strutting."

It's pretty clear what I learned that day. The pilot in command bears the responsibility for the safe conduct of the flight, but this does not imply that safe conduct is the PIC's sole responsibility. Flying the airplane comes first, but not necessarily first and last. While I was totally engaged in managing our emergency, there were plenty of appropriate moments for me to let my passenger understand the situation. It wouldn't have taken long to say, "We have a problem, but we are going to land safely at that airport right there."

The primary failure was indeed one of the turbochargers, with attendant loss of all our oil. The decision to shut down was fortuitous, and all that was needed was a rebuilt turbocharger.

There were other lessons as well. For one, it really can happen to me. I was very fortunate that I had unlimited visibility, good daylight, and plenty of altitude. In clouds and ice at night the whole experience might have been very different. My flight planning is more conservative today.

It turned out that the oxygen canister, which is not reusable, was, in fact, already spent. There is a warning lamp on the annunciator panel to let you know when the canister is empty, but some previous owner had actually cut the wire and disabled the warning lamp. This discrepancy had escaped our prepurchase inspection and the annual right after purchase. I now have a checklist of life-critical systems to be regularly inspected.

Ralph L. Miller, AOPA 729252, has logged more than 2,200 hours in more than 20 years of flying. He owns and flies a Piper Malibu.

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