October 1, 2007
My airplane and I are flying in a whiteout, which is caused by a flat light condition, with snow on the ground and an overcast sky. The sky is overcast at 1,500 feet. The reported visibility is five miles. In other words, if there were a caribou standing on the tundra five miles away, I would be able to see it; however, I still can't see right in front of my nose because of the whiteout conditions.
It is 20 degrees below zero. I am in a Cessna 207, Alaska's version of the versatile workhorse pick-up truck. This is the passenger and mail plane, the freight hauler, the medevac, and the taxi of the North. The 207's Continental IO-540 engine drones, its 300 horses dragging us along the leaden skies. There are absolutely no trees, roads, houses, towers, or contrast to relieve the whiteness. No visual references here. My eyes still want to wander outside to find a horizon. They stay inside the cockpit because that is where the gauges are. It is the only way I can keep the airplane flying right side up. On the instrument panel in front of me are six little instruments that help me keep the airplane from crashing into the frozen ground. The attitude indicator, the altimeter, the airspeed, the turn-and-bank indicator, the directional gyro, and the vertical speed indicator all join together to keep me from disaster. These flight instruments are supplemented by the engine instruments, which are designed to keep me informed of any changes I might need to know about. Fuel gauges, oil temperature, oil pressure, and suction gauge all are devices that tell me how happy the engine is. Despite being armed with all these, my inner senses try to entice me to look outside to find out where the horizon really is. Vertigo is a killer of unwary pilots.
I glance outside once in a while, and that is only to see whether there is any relief from all the white. I know that this is fruitless, since I am flying over Arctic tundra in the middle of winter. I feel like I am flying inside a ping-pong ball. Or I feel like I am flying inside a full milk carton, and not the skim milk variety either. Whole milk. The thick kind. Add to this the engine noise, the cold control yoke, the fogged up windscreen, some Eskimo lady passengers snuggled up in the seats behind me, and I am sitting inside a single-engine airplane in a whiteout. The airplane and I are squiring these four ladies on a charter flight to Point Hope, a five-and-a half-hour round trip. We took off from Barrow, Alaska, some 25 miles ago. The ladies are happily chatting away with each other, friends united. The flight is uneventful up to this point.
Sometimes pilots know there is a problem even if one hasn't technically shown up yet on the gauges, especially when they know their airplane's most intimate sounds and feel. The tiny baby engine surge that just tests their nerves, the little wiggles of the engine indicator needles, and the little nudges the control yoke gives just to make sure you are awake. Today the airplane is not testing me. I somehow know in my gut feeling that something is amiss. That way down deep in the warrens of this airplane's engine, something just isn't quite right. I glance outside, instinctively looking for an emergency landing spot, only to quickly go back to the gauges. I tell these four Eskimo ladies that I am turning around and heading back to Barrow, that we may have a problem. No complaint, they are content to sit and chatter away with each other. I contemplate the thought of an emergency landing in the whiteout. This is the perfect opportunity to relive floatplane glassy water landing techniques in my head. I certainly can't use normal visual landing techniques in these kinds of conditions.
We are 15 miles from Barrow when reality starts setting in. The engine instrument needles start acting up, moving this way and that in a slow, deliberate manner. The oil pressure gauge starts an ominous, slow descent toward zero psi. At first I hope that it is an instrument error. Sometimes that happens; maybe the needle is stuck somehow. But then I see the oil temperature gauge in a slow, steady climb toward the red line, the danger zone. Somehow I just hope that maybe the two engine instruments are going bad at the same time, despite the fact I know better than that. I don't ignore the flight instruments; they know that if I neglect them for too long they will point in all different kinds of directions, most of which would not show some sort of normal straight-and-level flight setting. I decide to call the Barrow Flight Service station to inform them that I may have a problem; I will keep them updated on my progress. I ask the four ladies to put unnecessary items away and to cinch their seatbelts good and tight. They comply willingly and calmly. They still chatter away. I show them no sort of apprehensiveness. I know that if I do, they will get nervous.
Now I am five "short" miles from Barrow. It starts. I am fully alert and ready for anything. The oil pressure gauge has not had any reading above zero for quite a few miles. The oil temperature gauge needle is pegged way past the maximum red line limit. The instruments look so out of whack and unnatural. How can they be so pegged out for so many miles with the engine still running? I chew on that only for a short minute because of the smell that starts emanating from the front end of the cockpit, a rude flinty sort of smell, a hot burning paint and metal sort of rank odor. By this time I know that the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue team are gearing their helicopter up for a rescue. I inform the ladies that we may have to land on the tundra. Please follow my every instruction. Protect their heads when I tell them to. They trust me. They don't erupt into panic and scream. They wait for my instructions. I am grateful that they put their trust in my abilities to get them safely to the ground. They have been frequent passengers of mine over the years.
The smell gets overpowering. The IO-540 starts lugging and grinding into itself, like a sick person instinctively curling into a fetal position. I can feel the various parts seize into each other. I imagine the metal parts melting and fusing together in their efforts to turn the engine into a smelting pot. I hope that when I land on the tundra in this whiteout I don't end up in an unseen river ditch. Glassy water landing techniques, attitude, attitude, attitude, hold it that way all the way to touchdown on the water/ground. I push my seat back just enough to reduce the chances of my face becoming an instrument panel decoration in the ensuing crash, but I can still reach all the controls. The ladies are ready, too. They are silent now. They watch my every move, eyes flashing. I smile at them to reassure them. We are lucky. We are still at 1,000 feet and in the air, with the engine still miraculously grinding away. It makes a lot of protesting noises. It does not like its current situation. It bangs and clangs away to let me know its displeasure. I cannot make the engine better, but wish I could.
For an aircraft that has an engine overhaul, the first few hours of operation is the most likely time for something to go wrong. I have broken in many aircraft engines after an overhaul, per manufacturer or overhauling station instructions. In the rare times that something does happen during this period, it could be something insignificant or a serious problem. This 207 that I was flying had 27.3 hours on an overhauled engine. The rare thing that happens happened today. The lifters didn't fit right and oil couldn't get to them, so they just burned up.
Somehow, I manage to limp the crippled 207 into the Barrow airport and make an uneventful landing. At the other end of the field I see the search and rescue helicopter outside its hangar, warmed up, engine running, blades whirling, ready to come and pluck us off the tundra. Barrow Flight Service radio informs them of my safe arrival. I see the chopper reluctantly shut down its power; it was ready for some real work. The North Slope Borough Search and Rescue team is the best I've ever seen or been involved with. The airplane and I come clanking onto the ramp and I shut down what is left of the engine. The four Eskimo ladies and I all crawl out of the airplane. I expect cries like, "We cheated death!" or some sort of kissing the ground ceremony from my relieved passengers. We all meet at the front end of the offending 207, and its hot engine and the first words out of their mouths are, "It sure was starting to stink in there."
Ellen Paneok is an aviation safety inspector for the FAA in Alaska.
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