Never Again Online: Is this an emergency now?

June 1, 2002

It was a beautiful, typical flight in the warm deserts of Arizona in June 1999 with the vistas and thermals ever present in summer flying. However, when I experienced a total loss of oil pressure 25 miles from Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, my serenity fled with the oil.

It all started with a much-planned and anticipated flight to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to visit the region's famous caverns. This would be my third trip, having made two in my Cessna 172 in years past. This time I was flying my "new" 1971 Cessna 177 Cardinal RG that had a factory-remanufactured engine with fewer than 700 hours. Having flown my 1966 172 to 1,780 hours and my 1968 fixed-gear Cardinal to 1,976 hours without even a sputter, I had every confidence in my low-time engine.

Several days earlier, while en route to Carlsbad, we were literally on top of an airport at 6,000 feet agl when I heard a sudden over-rev. I first pulled the throttle back with no results. Then, with the prop control, I brought the rpm within tolerable limits and asked approach for an immediate landing at the airport, which was granted. Thinking the governor had gone out, I reported my problem to the mechanic and rented a car to complete the trip while the airplane awaited repairs.

Three days later, with a new governor, we were on our way home when 20 miles out I noticed the oil pressure was halfway between zero and the bottom of the green arc. I immediately returned to the airport. Upon examination, both an external oil pressure gauge and the cockpit gauge were reading normal pressure and within five pounds of each other. The mechanic poked and prodded in a few places and said that maybe some debris got under the relief valve and kept it open just enough to cause the low pressure reading, and he sent us on our way. We flew to Holbrook, Arizona, with no problems. There, we rented a car, toured the Petrified Forest nearby, and left early the next morning for Las Vegas, Nevada.

About 25 miles from Flagstaff I looked at the oil pressure and discovered it was on zero. Since I use VFR flight following, I immediately called the controller and asked where the nearest airport was; Flagstaff was the closest. I informed ATC of the oil problem but noted that I was still developing full power. When asked if I was declaring an emergency, I said no. Two minutes later I was told the equipment was standing by and I was cleared to land, with 23 miles to go. My passenger, hearing everything through her headset, asked if this was an emergency and I replied, "Not yet."

With the loss of oil pressure, I reduced my rpm to 2,200, trying to conserve altitude. At 10,500 feet I was well above the ground, but I was also a long way from Flagstaff and, looking down, I could not find any private runways.

As we came within 10 to 12 miles of the airport, the desert changed to trees. I knew there must be a road somewhere below me, but I was not about to waste forward progress or altitude looking for one. To complicate things, about 15 miles out, my constant-speed prop had lost oil pressure and pitched to where it was barely pulling the airplane. This again caused an over-rev that necessitated dropping the rpm with the attendant loss of power and speed. My major task was to delay my altitude loss as much as possible. When we were seven miles out, we passed two meadows on either side of the plane with a small row of trees between them. I seriously considered doing a gear-up landing in one of the meadows. While thinking about it, I looked over at my passenger and wondered if I was going to end up killing this wonderful person. I had two meadows under me surrounded by trees and the airport ahead with nothing but trees between. Off-field landing or go for the airport? Either one was a nonreversible decision. One meadow contained a small lake and I could not tell if either one of them was large enough to land without going into the trees, especially given the stress I was under. I was still about 2,000 feet above the airport, making about 69 knots groundspeed and indicating roughly the same airspeed. The airplane was still flying and developing a little power. My altitude loss was about 200 feet per minute, so I decided if the airplane was still flying, I was too.

I was five miles from Flagstaff when the crankshaft broke. There was a terrible bang, the nose dipped down, there was a momentary stall of the engine, and then it started up again. The ensuing vibration was so severe I could not read the instrument panel. My first thought was that I had thrown one of the prop's three blades. Upon later reflection I realized that if one blade came off, it would only be a matter of seconds before the entire front end would have come off. But at the time I couldn't fathom what else could cause such severe vibration.

Right after the crank broke, my passenger said, "Is this an emergency now?" I looked at her and said, "Pretty close." Knowing the fire truck and field paramedics were already in position, I figured that declaring an emergency would have no effect except to create a mountain of FAA paperwork.

By this time the vibration was so bad that all I could tell from the instruments was that the airspeed indicator needle was still in the white zone. People talk a lot about what goes through their minds in a situation like this: family, religion, friends. All I could think of was what my primary and instrument instructors beat into my head over and over. "Ignore all else and fly the airplane." "Fly the airplane first and disregard everything else." "No matter what happens, fly the airplane." Fortunately, on this occasion it was easy because my passenger, terrified as much as she was, never said a word, never touched a control. She told me later that she tried to pray but was so scared she couldn't think.

By the time I reached the threshold I was not far off the ground or much above stall speed. I decided to wait until over the pavement before dropping the gear, because it can cause a substantial loss of airspeed very quickly. We crossed the threshold at 50 feet. I dropped the gear, and then the nose when I felt the drag; I could not see the gear lights or the mirrors, or hear the gear cycle because of the incredible vibration. Finally, I gave up and decided to go in as slowly as possible and — gear up or gear down — at least we should walk away from it.

By good fortune the gear locked no more than three seconds before touchdown. The engine was still running, and I was able to taxi to the ramp. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the FBO crew coming out to the plane with red carpets to put at our doors.

When I got out of the plane, I saw oil dripping from the cowling and wondered how the engine could have run that long with no oil. I found the screw-in dipstick hanging loose — so severe was the vibration, the dipstick backed out! The crankcase still had more than seven and a half quarts of oil in it.

We later discovered that the floating wrist pin caps were fashioned incorrectly had worn against the cylinder walls. These aluminum shavings clogged the oil lines. Lycoming had corrected this problem previously, but somehow the engine in my airplane was never tracked down and fixed.

If I had known more, I would have insisted on an oil analysis — including a check on the oil filter paper — when in the shop in New Mexico. I let a mechanic do a halfway job when he should have known better. Luckily, we were high enough and it was daylight, or the ending could have been much different.

Never again will I let a mechanic give me a pat on the shoulder and send me on my way. In the future I will insist on proof positive of the cause of the malfunction.


Laurence Steffan is an attorney and an instrument-rated private pilot. He has more than 1,200 hours and owns a Cessna 177 Cardinal RG.


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