Never Again Online: One down, none to go

October 1, 2001

The meetings in St. Louis broke up early and everyone was rushing to the airport to try to get an earlier flight home. They had all questioned me about my "corporate Mooney" during our day together, and I had extolled the virtues of general aviation. I was feeling fortunate that my flight would be ready whenever I was.

The flight service station briefer reported severe thunderstorms along my route to Denver, and the flight would have to be completed after dark since it was late afternoon. I already had the hotel room and the car until the next day � I don't tangle with thunderstorms.

The next morning, the weather looked fine � just cloud layers and light precipitation. I loaded up N201WN and departed IFR into a beautifully smooth sky. The cloud layers added grace to the flow of the songs and the farms. Not even a headwind on this fine day.

About 10 minutes later, somewhere between two heartbeats, my serenity fled. It was like waking up to find that you just slept through an important interview. The engine was running roughly and the plane was slowing down. "Ah," I thought as I switched tanks, "probably some water in the gas." Nope. I hit the mixture and the boost pump and the engine was still shaking like a wet dog.

When I looked at the instrument panel I saw the oil pressure on zero. I pulled the prop back to reduce rpm and realized that there was no point in continuing to try to regain power � my goal was to simply keep the engine attached to the airplane.

I keyed the mic. "Uh...Kansas City Approach, this is One-Whiskey-November, I need vectors to the nearest airport. I've got a problem here."

"Roger One-Whiskey-November, Lawrence is at your 11 o'clock and 14 miles. Take a heading of 250, can you make that?"

I had said it. Vectors to the nearest airport. The phrase that I had rehearsed so many times in my head. This was the reason that I fly at altitudes in the low teens and file IFR even when the weather is mostly VFR. The reality was sinking in; I had one engine and it was not running. This was real � very, very real.

"Kansas City Approach, this is One-Whiskey-November. I've had a complete engine failure, and I only have one engine." I realized that I had busted my altitude by a few hundred feet and so I threw in, "Oh yeah, and I'm descending, by the way." Trying to remain calm and focused, I added, "In case you're wondering, I am declaring an emergency." I thought saying that would make me feel more secure. It didn't. Just remember, it's the insurance company's airplane now.

For the next few minutes I chatted with approach about the unicom frequency, field elevation, and runways. I had managed to calculate that with 9,000 feet I could very likely glide to the airport.

I found it remarkably difficult to pitch and trim for best glide speed. For some reason, my mind did not want to admit that this was not a normal descent. I was descending at 1,000 fpm and I knew that this was not acceptable. All I wanted was to be on the ground. I felt that the sooner I got on the ground, the sooner this would be over. It took very deliberate action to trim that nose up and let that airspeed drop. Giving up the cruise-flight attitude for a dead-stick landing was difficult to do on an intellectual level, but it was damn near impossible to get my body to cooperate.

I punched into the clouds at around 7,000 feet. Since the propeller was spinning, the engine was still turning along with the vacuum pump, so I still had gyros. I usually fly IFR with two fingers on the yoke, but this time I held it with some kind of isometric death grip that surely consumed all the calories I'd eaten for breakfast. As I passed through 5,000 feet, the clouds were all above me and I reported the field in sight. Reluctantly, I left the approach controller and switched to the advisory frequency. I got the active, the wind conditions, and the advisory that there was extensive aerobatics practice over the airport.

Terrific. I'm just gonna have to be selfish. "Lawrence Traffic, I've got an engine failure, and I only have one engine. If you guys could stay out of the way, I'd appreciate it."

I circled over the field to enter a right downwind for Runway 15. While doing the prelanding check it occurred to me that gas on fullest and mixture rich was not exactly appropriate. Well, better to do the checks lest I do something sad like leave the gear up.

I was too high and too fast. I did not want to give up my altitude or airspeed. The fact that I had only one shot at this was really messing up my ability to hit target altitudes and airspeeds in the pattern. As I neared the point where I would have to turn final, it was clear that I was going to overshoot the runway.

I decided to change runways and extended my base to approach Runway 19. When I turned final, I was still fast. The gear went down, and I put in more flaps and slipped that plane so hard I thought it might turn around and fly backwards. When the threshold passed below me at 90 mph I was thinking that I still might overshoot. How embarrassing. After a thousand feet of asphalt had flashed behind me, I released the slip and tried to set it down. All I wanted now was rubber on the ground so I could hit the brakes, finally the brakes � please. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Steve, you can't land a Mooney before its time. Pulling the nose up for a real flare, I thought, "If I overrun and bend the nosewheel, then I'll just fix the nosewheel."

The fourth touchdown was a keeper. Now it occurred to me that if I didn't get this thing off the runway, they would have to close it, so I released a little Herculean leg pressure on the old brakes and coasted off onto a taxiway.

While I was waiting to have the shop look into my troubled engine, I was treated to a wonderful airshow. You see, the World Aerobatic Competition was scheduled at the airport for the next week and yours truly had interrupted their practice. I was humbled by thinking that they had probably all had a few dead-sticks in their past.

By afternoon I had a place in the hangar and we drained the oil and cut the filter. There were metal pieces in the folds. My hopes of putting on a new cylinder and flying home were gone. I called my trusted Mooney doctor. We discussed the situation for a few minutes and he declared that he was going to take the rear seat out of his Cessna182RG and pick up the engine and me and bring us back to Colorado.

Within two hours of touching down the next day at Jefferson County Airport, in Broomfield, Colorado, the mechanic had the engine completely torn down. The air wrench whirred, the mechanic whirled, and the parts were sorted and neatly distributed into piles, boxes, and bins. Watching him work was like ballet.

His theory began with the wrist-pin cap that was mangled when retrieved from the sump. Its failure allowed the wrist pin to move and the piston to cock. At this point, the wrist pin tore the bottom off of the piston and bent the connecting rod. By then, pieces of metal were flying everywhere and wiped out most of the lifter bodies. End of story.

The hole in the crankcase was in the bottom and had vented oil into the intake manifold. When I saw that, tears welled up in my eyes and I started to feel really lucky. Had it been in the top of the case, my landing would have been made with oil on the windshield and my eyeball hanging out the tiny side window.

When the work was complete, we swung the engine into a Jeep Cherokee, loaded up a few hundred pounds of tools, and headed back to the east side of Kansas.

After reattaching the engine to its Mooney mounts, tweaking the oil pressure regulator, and logging some "insurance time" on the ground, we were ready for a flight. We crossed the soybeans uneventfully and climbed 4,000 or 5,000 feet above the field. After an hour or so of circling around the airport, the temperatures and pressures looked better than ever.

I took off and headed west. There were clouds down low, but I was supposed to keep the power high for the first few hours. I stayed under them for a while but they kept dropping. The last thing that I wanted to do with a new engine was to be down on the deck with no altitude in the bank. Reluctantly, I climbed, and 8,500 feet worked fine for a while. But then I had to climb up to 12,500 feet just for a bit to top a little cloud ridge.

"Geez, how could I have missed that?" I was starring at an EGT that was 50 degrees over peak rpm. I turned the knob a couple of twists in and continued my descent. Checking it again a few seconds later left me equally perplexed. Now it was 100 degrees over the target. I started turning the mixture in and looking for a response, but there was none. After a few turns, the vernier was feeling kind of funny and it wasn't doing anything. I thought about continuing on or landing and having a look. Yuma, Colorado, has a fine little airport, so I decided to visit. I must be getting used to these unplanned flight interruptions.

Before I could get the cowling off, a local mechanic was on hand to tell me about how it was probably the mixture linkage that had come loose. I had the lower cowling camlocks out and we lowered it onto the ground. "Well, there you go now, son." He reached onto the lower cowling, and I felt a little uneasy about not being in control of the situation. "Here's your castle nut right here." He picked it up and plunked it in my hand. "Looks like it just worked its way on out of there."

The memories of the morning came flooding back. When I had interrupted Joe's work to help me with the throttle linkage, he was working on the mixture linkage. I bet I broke his train of concentration, and his castle nut never got pinned.

I also remember many times during training when instructors told me, "Just fly the plane. Whatever happens, just keep on flying the plane." Perhaps there's another line of guidance that is equally as appropriate: Take a deep breath, assess what you have to work with, and then work with it. Never again will I whine to my instructor during flight reviews when he insists on my performing surprise engine-out drills. It was my comfort with the engine-out approach and landing that kept this potentially serious problem from bending innocent aluminum.


Steve Frank is an engineering consultant and a 1,200-hour instrument-rated private pilot. He owns a Mooney 201.


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