Never Again Online: Carbon monoxide encounter

November 1, 2001

My adventure began on a cold winter evening when a friend called and asked me to join him on a short cross-country the next day. His 1946 Ercoupe 415-C had been in for an annual inspection and he was anxious to get it back home.

The trip was only 70 miles but I could not pass up the chance to go for an airplane ride, even if it was in the middle of winter and well below zero. Even though I have been flying for about 40 years, the thrill of flight still excites me and the excitement of going anywhere keeps me young.

My friend was as punctual as always, and we drove across the southwest corner of South Dakota to the town where the annual inspection had been completed. Upon arrival at the airport, we were both very pleased to see that the FBO had left the plane inside overnight because of the extremely cold temperatures. My friend settled up with the FBO and did the walkaround and preflight inspection inside the heated hangar. We agreed to get inside the plane while in the hangar and a line person would open the door and pull us outside into the frigid air. As soon as the engine was running, I pulled on the cabin heat.

We lifted off into the clear, cold sky, which was as smooth as silk. These are the conditions we hope for during the hot summer days when the airplane climbs like it's operating on partial power. We ascended to cruise altitude and leveled off for what I thought was going to be a brief but beautiful flight. I could sit back and enjoy the serenity of last night's snowfall that covered the landscape and made everything look so pure.

It wasn't long until I noticed that we were off course and the aircraft was changing heading on a regular basis. This was strange, as the air was very stable, so I reminded my friend that he might want to correct his heading a few degrees. I wasn't worried because we both knew the area very well. I continued to enjoy the scenery, but as we were passing a lake off to my right that was dotted with ice-fishing houses, my friend turned to me and said, "I don't know where we're at." I thought he was joking, as though we were a couple of kids playing in the backyard. Of course we knew where we were! Not so � and to confirm this, my friend slumped over and passed out. Wait a minute. This is only supposed to happen in the movies. Maybe this explains why he was not able to hold a constant heading.

I wasn't sure what the problem was � I thought I was fine. I put my gloves back on and pulled the windows down, which gave us an immediate shock of frigid air and, along with the airspeed, an instant freeze. What had been an enjoyable flight had suddenly turned into a life-threatening situation, as we were still about 15 minutes from Edgemont (South Dakota) Municipal Airport where we were to land and meet some friends. The cold air was working a little to bring my friend around � he started to talk but didn't make any sense. He said that he was dying and would never see his family again. Obviously he didn't have any faith in his copilot.

After what seemed like the longest cross-country I had ever been on, the airport came into view. I continued talking to my friend about our position en route, not knowing if he heard or understood anything I was saying. Suddenly, he vomited all over the cockpit, and me as well. This was getting more fun by the minute! By now I was feeling the effects of hypothermia and started to shake, but I kept flying as help was nearby. As I turned base, it was apparent that the runway had not been plowed since the snowfall the night before. I knew I had to put it on the ground ASAP.

I kept the power in and when the airplane settled into the fresh snow the wheels bogged down, practically without rolling. We were stuck on the runway. I shut everything down, bailed out, and ran up to our awaiting friends, who couldn't figure out why I was so excited. When I explained the situation we all went back to the plane and removed our very sick pilot in command. He was not able to stand on his own initially, but after a few minutes he started to come out of his almost-comatose state. I was told later that I was white as a ghost.

We got the airplane off the runway, loaded my friend into a van, and headed for the nearest hospital. On the way there he woke up but complained of a severe headache. As we discussed our close call, we figured that it had to be carbon monoxide poisoning. A couple of days later, my friend went back to check out the airplane. He found a large crack in the exhaust system, which was easily visible once the engine cowling was removed. It was obvious to us that even though the airplane had just come out of its annual inspection, it had never been checked. You didn't need to be a mechanic to see this problem.

As a result of this adventure I will always dress appropriately in the winter months and travel with a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. We could have easily become a statistic on that tranquil winter day.


James Schuster, AOPA 721973, has been flying since he soloed a Piper J-3 Cub in 1961. He met his wife while they were both taking lessons, and now they fly a Piper Arrow and a Grumman Tiger together.


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