January 18, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
It’s been a good visit with friends. Making the trip more special was your grand arrival in a newly purchased aircraft, which (after some early engine roughness) performed perfectly. Now, as you prepare to depart, there’s a round of picture-taking with the aircraft providing a happy backdrop.
One pronounced feature of those photos is the murky weather into which you will climb, unlike the dazzling sun that greeted you two days ago. You have briefed and filed a route that seems a bit hectic during departure, but simpler as you proceed down the airway.
Preparation for that departure will be critical, because you will likely enter the clouds almost immediately after takeoff. So you will preset every nav and com radio to a useful frequency, reducing your airborne workload.
As expected, you have hardly raised the landing gear when you are on instruments, en route to the first fix.
An irksome thought arises: Is that engine roughness back?
You struggle to put imaginary problems aside, but your eye is drawn to the engine gauges, where the Number Two cylinder shouts “overheat!” Oil pressure is definitely dropping.
Discarding denial and disbelief, you declare an emergency and request an immediate return to the airport.
How will this proceed? A pilot trained to consider an emergency after takeoff would have placed the unfamiliar local instrument approach plates within easy reach—not inaccessibly stuffed into the flight case—and memorized key frequencies, bearings, and altitudes. And don’t forget to review the local terrain.
Such an event involved a Cirrus SR20 in 2011. The aircraft (with a piston later found to be damaged from detonation) lost power soon after climbing into IMC. Attempting a return to Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, La., it broke out at 300 feet, unable to reach a runway but ditching in Lake Pontchartrain.
No training exercise can replicate the surprise and disbelief of an engine problem, systems failure, or other emergency encountered in IMC after takeoff. Still useful would be to fly to a less-than-familiar airport and practice an aborted departure concluding (under power) with an instrument approach back to safety, ATC workload permitting. The drill might even alter your personal minimums for IFR departures.
The SR20’s narrative also observed that the engine had sent prior hints of detonation damage that had been received, but misinterpreted.
Has your aircraft engine been trying to send a message?
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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