Never Again

Sudden thump, sickening vibration

June 1, 2010

The first day you fly your new airplane is a day you will never forget. At 43 years old, I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and learn to fly. I had spent many hours on my computer over the years flying everything from Cessna 152s to F-22 Raptors, and I finally decided to go for the real thing.

After talking to my flight instructor, Miller, I decided to buy an airplane and learn to fly in it instead of a rental. I found a beautiful Cessna 175 on eBay with an engine that was getting close to TBO, but it appeared to be in great shape. The airplane was in Elkhart, Indiana, a long way from my home in Clearwater, Florida. But I was going to Kentucky for a family reunion, and the airplane was relatively close. After the reunion, my wife and I drove up and took a look at it.

She was beautiful—far nicer than even the newest airplanes my local flight school had at the time. Kept in a hangar since 1960 when she was new, she had perfect paint and a clean interior. Her records showed that she had been treated tenderly and with the proper attention since birth, accumulating fewer than 3,300 hours total time and no damage. The fuselage looked like new inside, and I couldn’t find a speck of corrosion. The only drawback was the avionics. Everything worked, but it was vintage equipment and overdue for an upgrade. All the repairs and maintenance were done with great care.

The owner arranged for an instructor to take me up. I had never flown from the left seat and was thrilled to take the controls. We taxied to the runway and started flying the pattern. I was sold, left a deposit, and arranged to pick up the airplane in two weeks.

I took my flight instructor with me to Elkhart so we could fly home together, and I could start logging dual instruction right away. I made a detailed preflight inspection, and Miller followed right behind. Everything looked great, and we were off. The Continental GO-300C engine enabled the airplane to climb at more than 1,000 fpm, even with two big guys on board.

Miller watched as I leveled off at 2,500 msl, and said, “Teaching you is going to be easy.” It’s amazing how much flying computerized flight simulators helped me in the real thing. The airplane had a yoke-mounted Garmin 296 GPS, and I followed the preprogrammed course.

After an hour in flight, we noticed clouds forming under us. The ceiling below the clouds was at about 500 feet. We weren’t too concerned because the clouds were supposed to be limited to a few areas and our destination was clear. Besides, Miller was instrument-rated, and the airplane was IFR-certified. Miller was tracking our position using the nav radio, and I was following the GPS.

We decided to climb to 4,500 feet, when there was a sudden thump followed by a sickening vibration. At first I thought we had hit a bird. Then came the smell of oil on a hot exhaust, accompanied by a banging and rattling from under the cowling. Dents were forming in the top of the cowl as the connecting rod in the number-five cylinder slammed into it and a huge dent—with a spark plug sticking out of it—appeared on the right side. Oil hit the windshield in tiny droplets, and the airplane began to shake.

“I have the airplane,” Miller said, as he took the controls. With a few quick attempts to settle down the engine, he said, “We’re in trouble.”

Miller was cool as ice, and I remember how glad I was that he was there. He asked, “Where is the closest airport?”

“It’s six miles behind us,” I said. Hitting the “Nearest” button gave us the heading and distance.

Miller began a turn to the left, established a 65-knot glide, and headed for the airport. The engine was really shaking and smoking, and I suggested shutting it down. But it became a moot point as the engine seized and the prop stopped. I called out the distance to the airport as Miller concentrated on keeping the situation under control. We glided along above the clouds, and finally it was time to descend through them.

The antiquated attitude indicator was winding down and wouldn’t be of use much longer. When we broke out below the clouds, we were in position to choose either of the runways at Mount Comfort Airport just east of Indianapolis.

Miller made a perfect landing—and that’s when I saw him start to shake.

It is often said that a chain of minor, unrelated events can combine to create a disaster. In this case I think that a chain of minor unrelated events combined to avoid a disaster.

First of all, we had deviated to the west, a path that took us closer to Mount Comfort Airport. Also, if Miller hadn’t suggested that we climb when we did, we wouldn’t have had enough altitude to glide to a safe landing. Had the seller not thrown in the GPS, we never would have found the airport. The moving map showed the airport and runway configuration while we were still in the clouds.

I did learn a lot from the incident that made me a better pilot. (Yes, I did complete my training and got my certificate.) That is, good preparation for cross-country flying can be a lifesaver. Also, I fly as high as practical because altitude gives you more time and additional options. And I’ll never make a cross-country flight without a good GPS. Nav radios are fine, but there’s nothing like a modern GPS to provide situational awareness.

Joe Ballow, AOPA 5793323, has been a private pilot since January 2007.