Never Again Online: Sweaty palms

September 1, 2002

Early one May evening, I was working with an instrument student in his Cessna 182. After an hour of dual instruction and several practice ILS and missed approach procedures at Chester County Airport in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, it was time to land. The student accomplished the last approach without flaps, which resulted in the airspeed and subsequent groundspeed being too fast to make a normal landing. I instructed him to go around. He applied full throttle and made a normal climbout and downwind entry.

At pattern altitude, he attempted to reduce power in order to bring the airspeed into the flap operating range in preparation for landing. Oddly enough, as he pulled back the throttle we noticed the manifold pressure did not correspondingly decrease. We also noticed that the engine sounded as though it was still at full power. My student commented that maybe the manifold pressure gauge was stuck, and he mentioned he thought that it had stuck on one other occasion.

Sitting in the right seat with the gauge immediately in front of me, I tapped it, but intuitively I knew that the gauge was not defective based on the sound of the engine. Once again, the pilot increased the throttle to full power with no change in the engine operation. By now, the airspeed had increased to its maximum and our downwind extended beyond the normal range.

He slowly reduced the throttle, hoping this time we would see a reduction in the engine speed and noise. As he continued to bring the throttle control back to its full-aft position, it came out completely in his hand. We both looked at each other, and I said to him, "That's interesting!"

He reinserted the throttle back into the housing and began trying to screw it back in, hoping that there may have been some screw threads inside that would reattach the throttle to the cable. This experiment complete, he pulled the throttle back again, and the result was the same: the throttle in his right hand. The entire sequence of events had not taken more than a minute or two. At that point I began to make a mental assessment of our options, and my student called unicom and declared an emergency.

Several thoughts immediately passed through my mind. Emergency checklists. I've read a lot of them over the years but didn't recall any of them dealing with this type of emergency, so I thought, You're on your own with this one.

I could take the time to unbuckle my seat belt and try to position myself in the seat to allow me to look under the panel and possibly be able to reach the throttle cable and perhaps reduce the power. However, I quickly dismissed this option because of the time it would have taken, and I didn't relish the idea of unbuckling my seat belt.

The next thought was to control the power and airspeed using the mixture control. And my last thought was that if I took control of the airplane I became pilot in command, legally and physically liable for the outcome, so don't screw up!

Reasoning with myself, I determined that our fate was probably better off in my hands with 27 years of experience versus my student's, who is a fine pilot for his level of experience — about 175 hours total time.

Our downwind was considerably extended by this point. I turned left base and began reducing the mixture control to see at what point the engine would stop. I played with it several times to get the feel for it. Turning to final, I remained higher than normal to assure that I could make the runway. The wind was more or less straight down the runway at about 15 knots gusting to about 20 knots — good for landing but not for gliding any distance in case the engine decided to completely stop.

Upon reaching a point on final at which I knew we had the runway made, I cut the mixture, killing the engine and setting up a normal glide. As we came into the flap operating range, I began to lower the flaps and completed a normal landing. Turning off on the taxiway, we coasted to a position in front of the maintenance hangar.

My student and I shook hands and both noted our sweaty palms. Several of the local pilots had heard us declare the emergency over unicom and arrived quickly at the aircraft to see what the emergency was all about. All were intrigued by holding the throttle control loose in their hands.

Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the throttle cable had broken at the swage where it connects to the throttle control. Within minutes the aircraft was in the hangar for repair.

My student and I walked a quarter of a mile back to the T-hangars where our cars were parked, reflecting on the instrument lesson and the emergency that we had survived to talk about. Some time afterward, an important fact came to light: The engine was new, and the facility that installed the engine had failed to replace the cables along with it. The throttle cable that broke was more than 30 years old. Now I know to double check with a maintenance facility after major repair work to make sure all of the aging hardware is replaced along with the engine.


Paul McMinn is a chief pilot for a corporation, flying a Citation Encore and Ultra, and soon upgrading to a Falcon 900EX. He has more than 7,000 hours and is an airline transport pilot with multiengine and flight instructor ratings. In his free time he flies a de Havilland Vampire and a Hawker Hunter.


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