March 25, 2013
Beautiful blue skies in the Northeast after weeks of freezing rain and snow created an irresistible urge to fly. My wife, daughter, and I had planned to fly to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Friday morning for Presidents' Day weekend. Everything was "go" for an early morning departure from our home base at University Park Airport in State College, Pennsylvania. However, a winter storm in the Southeast would probably prevent our return until at least Tuesday, too late for my daughter's Monday morning classes, so Myrtle Beach would have to wait.
But a strong westerly flow aloft would enable my American General Tiger to fly to Wiscasset, Maine, in two hours, 45 minutes — record time for the 430-nm trek. We had flown to Wiscasset several times since purchasing my first airplane in 1996. A three-hour flight on a beautiful day, with the best seafood in the world for dinner, would make a perfect Valentine's Day.
The flight to Maine was uneventful. The Tiger averaged 165 knots groundspeed as we passed over a few low clouds. The outside temperature over the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire at 9,500 feet dropped to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I love the Tiger but will never brag about the cabin heater. I put on my jacket, and Ava, my wife, wrapped up in a wool blanket.
I called Boston Center over Keen, New Hampshire, and obtained flight following for the remainder of the trip. I'm sure glad I did. Having a controller to contact immediately may have made the difference between disaster and a day to remember.
My response to the events that followed really began years earlier. I routinely fly with a close friend, Mike, who is rated in everything from Cessna 150s to Learjets and is a commercial helicopter pilot as well as an FAA examiner. Whether flying in my airplane or his Piper Aerostar, Mike is constantly drilling me on proper flight procedures and testing my emergency skills.
Back to Maine. We began a VFR descent after our hand-off to Portland Center. As we passed through 8,000 feet, I pointed out the Portland airport four miles off our right wing. Because it was so cold — minus 10 degrees F — I was descending with lots of power to avoid shock cooling the engine. A scan of the panel revealed all gauges in the green. Our ground speed had increased to 170 knots with an indicated airspeed of about 125 knots. Sixteen more minutes and we would be on the ground at Wiscasset planning our seafood dinner. What happened next would change all that.
With no prior indication of any problem, the cabin began to fill with smoke. Ava nudged me to be sure I noticed, but I was already turning toward the Portland airport while I keyed the mic, "Portland, Tiger One-One-Niner-Four-Tango, declaring an emergency, smoke in the cabin." Portland acknowledged. By that point I couldn't see anything through the thick, acrid black smoke. Fortunately I've flown the Tiger for years, so by feel I switched off the battery and avionics switches. I couldn't see outside; I couldn't even see my hands. My IFR rating wasn't going to help here, as the IFR conditions were between me and the panel. I found I could see the ground through the side window. As I pressed my face against the side window, it appeared we were in a wispy cloud layer (there were no clouds; what appeared as a wispy layer was smoke).
The view out the side window enabled me to stay upright, hopefully descending toward the airport.
Several more seconds passed, and it appeared the smoke inside the cabin was decreasing. I could see Ava. We were under control, the airplane was flying great, and we had a 6,800-foot runway dead ahead.
I needed help, and Ava needed a job to occupy her. I told her to get out the handheld radio from my flight bag. The task would help her as much as it would help me. If I couldn't see outside, Portland Approach could talk me in.
Another minute passed. Since the smoke appeared to be decreasing, I felt safe in opening an air vent. What a relief — the smoke cleared, and Portland looked like heaven. We were almost out of the woods, but we still had a serious problem, as the fire could flare up again. Winds were out of the west at 10 knots gusting to 16 (I had luckily listened to the ASOS just before the smoke filled the cabin). We were high and very fast, so there was no way we would make it straight in on our easterly heading. I started my slip on downwind. By now I looked to Ava for the radio; she had it out but was so nervous she couldn't connect the antenna. As we turned base I told her to watch for traffic, which I knew wouldn't be there as I was sure Portland had cleared a path for us.
We slipped the whole way to the threshold, still at 110 knots. I remembered Mike reminding me that many emergencies end with the pilot flying off the end of the runway. I didn't touch down on the numbers, but we were able to turn off with runway to spare. While we were still rolling, we both unbuckled our seatbelts and prepared to get out. I told Ava not to be surprised by the anticipated emergency and fire trucks; she already knew, as she could see them following us on the parallel taxiway.
The Tiger stopped just past the hold-short line, and Ava and I jumped out into the cold sub-zero wind. It felt great.
Ava and I had a short warm ride in the Portland ambulance to Northeast Aviation FBO. Its maintenance personnel had towed the Tiger into a hangar and quickly diagnosed the problem. The engine breather tube was mounted with the notch outside the engine compartment, causing it to freeze shut, and pressure built up inside the crankcase until the main shaft seal burst, dumping motor oil onto the alternator, muffler, and heater. Repairs would be relatively minor. A four-day-long injection of fresh Maine lobster left Ava and me ready for our uneventful flight home.
Louis Glantz is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 1,100 hours in eight years of flying. He was a navigator on the F-4 Phantom for the U.S. Air Force. He now owns a 1977 Piper Lance.
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