Never Again Online: My first IFR flight

August 1, 2006

The weather was spectacular, and I was flying on an IFR flight plan for the first time. My flight instructor and I had just completed the leg to Southeast Texas Regional airport located in Beaumont, Texas, where we had made four instrument approaches, landed, and filed an IFR flight plan for the return trip back to Houston's David Wayne Hooks Memorial airport. We planned to complete this IFR training flight with a GPS approach back home at Houston.

As we descended through 3,000 feet, we heard a loud banging noise followed by engine shudder. At first I thought we had hit a bird. The engine paused and then shook several more times after which it immediately lost power. Oil sprayed on the windshield. Something was happening to our Cessna 182 Skylane — and it was no bird strike. We had a serious engine problem.

Instinctively my instructor and I both went into action. I slowed the airplane down and my instructor called Houston Approach for vectors to the nearest airport, Williams, a small airfield in Porter, Texas, about 15 miles from our home base. My instructor declared an emergency with Houston, and the controllers were of great help during our plight with the aircraft.

As we headed to Williams, I trimmed the airplane to best-glide speed and checked the engine instruments. Oil pressure was zero and the engine indicated 1,000 rpm. I was surprised to see that the engine still ran — at all. The noise was deafening. I finally remembered to push the "Nearest" button on the Garmin GNS 430 and my instructor had been right all along: Williams was the closest airport and now only four miles away. This was good news: we were descending through 1,000 feet and there was nothing beneath us but trees.

Oil sprayed steadily, covering my side of the windshield entirely. Thankfully very little oil was spraying onto the windshield on my instructor's side, and he could see perfectly well out of it. I though about leaning over to his side of the cockpit to fly and find the airstrip through his windshield, but it would have been very awkward. Besides, my instructor had meanwhile taken the controls, and I waited patiently while he set up the airplane for an emergency landing, dropping the flaps, and further trimming the airplane.

The cockpit was quiet except for the loud knocking sounds produced by the engine.

I remember thinking, "Make this one good, we only have one shot." My instructor's precise control, holding a steady angle of attack combined with the aircraft's earlier flap setting, allowed our crippled aircraft to smoothly skirt just several feet over the treetops and power lines and clearing them. All I could do was look out of my side of the cockpit, watch the trees rush by at wing level, and hope for a good outcome.

My instructor made a great deadstick landing, to everyone's relief. Incredibly, the engine still provided enough power to taxi off the runway onto the taxiway.

Once we had secured the airplane, we opened the oil hatch to find a connecting rod had driven through the engine block. We pulled the rod out, and further inspection at our home base by our mechanic showed two large holes where both the rod and pin had exited the engine.

Finally, I called my wife and asked her to pick us up at our "emergency" airfield. As she is not thrilled about my love of flying this was a call I dreaded to make. When she arrived, she just looked at my instructor and me and slowly shook her head.

Thinking back about our experience, I realize that we successfully dealt with this emergency — I think because we remained calm and went by the book. But, I also have learned several very important things from this flight.

Always know where you are in relation to an airport or suitable landing strip. "Situational awareness" is key during an emergency. I relied on my instructor's knowledge and ability. It took me a while to think of pushing the "Nearest" button on the GPS unit.

Plan ahead and be ready for a problem or emergency and practice emergency landings at least every few months to be prepared for a real one, should it happen.

Finally, think twice about calling your spouse to come and retrieve you from an incident. In retrospect, I should have spared my wife the scene. Instead, we could have called for transportation to take us back to our home base.

J. Peter Perez, AOPA 1294227, is a private pilot with more than 300 hours of flight time and working on his instrument rating. He is part owner in three aircraft at his local flying club and flies Angel Flight volunteer missions.

You can find additional information about coping with in-flight emergencies at the following links:

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again," in the September issue of AOPA Pilot. The story tells why it is important to speak up when things don't seem right.

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Posted Monday, August 07, 2006 3:46:30 PM