Never Again Online: That queasy feeling

November 1, 2005

She was a beautiful little 1963 Piper Cherokee 180. I watched her being meticulously rebuilt by our FBO.

At the time, I was based in Liberal, Kansas, and doing a fair amount of work for a nonprofit organization on the weekends. On this particular weekend, there was a meeting in a small town fairly close to Kansas City, Kansas. So, I decided to fly there in our Cherokee to visit family on Friday night and hop over to Eureka, Kansas, on Saturday morning.

The flight from Liberal Municipal Airport to New Century Aircenter was relatively quick at 2.6 hours in the air with a groundspeed of 117 knots. The trip was uneventful. During my postflight, however, I forgot to turn off the master switch. This was an unusual oversight, and I did not notice the brightly lit Garmin GNS 430 when I climbed across the airplane and locked it up.

The next morning I found the battery dead. I went ahead with the preflight and fueled the airplane at the self-serve pump. I noticed that the engine was a quart and a half low on oil, but still within operating parameters. When the FBO opened, I bought a couple of quarts of oil and they gave the airplane a jump-start. The engine turned right over. We talked for a couple of minutes about the airplane burning excessive oil and the new carbon residue on the left side of the cowling. After a sincere "thanks," I got in the airplane and flew to Eureka.

I filed a flight plan and engaged the services of flight following to Eureka Municipal Airport. Air traffic control (ATC) turned me loose about 10 miles from my destination. Although I was on my course and heading, I started to doubt myself and wondered whether I had passed the airport. I began to scan for any landmark to match my sectional chart, and I recall feeling very lost. After 20 minutes of flying a strange left-hand search pattern, I remembered that I could use the Nearest function on the 430. Sure enough, I was still within 10 miles of Eureka. It took me one hour and 25 minutes to fly the 45-minute trip.

The meeting included eating lunch at a greasy spoon. I wasn't feeling real well, but the barbecue was amazing. The rest of the meeting was uneventful, except that my stomach was queasy. I flew back to New Century in 54 minutes. When I got out of the cockpit, I recall feeling lightheaded and queasy. I made sure the master switch was off and asked the FBO to secure the airplane. I ran to the restroom and was sick. I sat at the FBO for 30 minutes trying to collect myself. I was convinced that I had either food poisoning from the greasy spoon or the flu. I slept 18 hours that night.

At 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, I went back to New Century for the long flight home. During preflight, I noticed that the carbon residue, which I had attributed to the engine burning excessive oil, was gone. A check of the oil revealed that I had used less than half a quart the day before. My windshield was clean and my gas tanks were full. I settled my account with the attendant, who said he had cleaned the airplane's cowling for me. I was impressed by the service and said another sincere "thanks."

It was possible to make the flight from New Century to Liberal nonstop with sufficient reserves. According to my preflight calculations, I would make it well into western Kansas without having to stop for gas. If conditions changed, there were several airports along the way with self-service pumps or Sunday hours. I filed a flight plan and requested flight following upon departure.

The first segment of the flight, along Interstate 35 to Emporia, was uneventful. There were plenty of landmarks, the CD player was working great, and there was little traffic on the frequency. Kansas City Center handed me off to Wichita Approach just after I passed Emporia. About 10 minutes after the handoff, Wichita contacted me and asked if I intended to change destinations. "No," I responded. My first thought was that the traffic was so light that the controller was bored. I noticed that I was off the magenta line on the GPS and about 1,000 feet higher than I intended to be. The controller indicated that he was curious because I was off course and it looked like I was headed to Wichita. He suggested a course correction. I remember thinking that he should try flying against this crazy wind. The headwind was about 10 degrees off my course and I — or rather, the airplane — was turned directly into the wind.

The next radio call from ATC came just 10 minutes later. The controller noticed that I had changed course initially, but that my altitude was varying greatly and I was again heading toward Wichita. I remember being annoyed with this controller who was interrupting my perfectly lovely VFR flight. Again, I changed course and corrected my altitude.

The third call came just five minutes later. The controller noticed that I was 2,000 feet high and headed directly toward Wichita. As I was talking to the controller I heard a loud boom and smoke filled the cabin. Apparently, the controller also heard the noise, because he interrupted a fascinating slideshow of my life passing before my eyes. With a calm and reassuring voice he asked, "Is everything OK?" I think my voice was calm as I reported that I was experiencing a substantial vibration and there was smoke in the cabin.

Immediately, Wichita gave me a half-dozen options for airports, including abandoned airports, private strips, and other areas to land. Fortunately, I was only a few miles from the Hutchinson Municipal Airport. I adjusted my pitch for best-glide speed and throttled back, assuming the engine was going to be out of commission. There was no sign of smoke or fire. When I throttled back, the vibration reduced. I told Wichita that I was going to try to make it to Hutchinson, which was about 20 miles from my position. Wichita handed me off to Hutchinson Tower.

Hutchinson Tower asked if I needed any additional information or assistance. The airplane felt like it was under control at that point. I told them, "Not at this time." The Tower cleared all traffic and helped make the landing uneventful, providing constant communication with a calm and professional demeanor. Of course, the greeting on the ramp was far from uneventful. There were fire trucks and an ambulance and a whole lot of people staring at me from the restaurant. At first, the fire crew and I could not determine what caused the vibration and the smoke. After we had been looking at the engine for about 10 minutes, it became crystal clear. The port-side exhaust pipe was separated from the muffler. The starboard-side exhaust pipe was shattered. It is impossible to say what caused the malfunction: a hard landing, an overtightened clamp, an invisible crack, or a dozen other reasons. It is sufficient to know that when the exhaust system is not working properly, bad things can happen.

I know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. I was an EMT (emergency medical technician) and firefighter and once suffered carbon monoxide poisoning after fighting a fire, while sitting in an old command vehicle on fire watch. The old truck was poorly ventilated and had a small crack in its exhaust. Even with my medical training and a history with the silent killer, I almost became a victim during this flight.

The leading symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are a headache, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. The brain is slowly deprived of oxygen, so confusion and disorientation are common side effects, as well. The gas is odorless and tasteless. Prolonged exposure can result in unconsciousness and death. During my first exposure with carbon monoxide poisoning, the other firefighter and I both reported feeling "a happy drunk." Nausea did not occur until fresh air was encountered. My second exposure — in Eureka — was very similar.

I've seen NTSB reports that have cited failure of ATC to communicate with the pilot as a contributing factor of the accident. Well, the entire reason that I am alive today is thanks to a controller who took an interest in a VFR flight that was off course.

I will never again ignore the signs of carbon monoxide — carbon residue evident anywhere out of the normal parameters — nor will I ever again ignore the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. In many single-engine airplanes we are sitting just inches from the exhaust system. Carbon monoxide is a real threat. I will never again fly in an airplane that does not have a carbon monoxide detector.


C. Edward Young, AOPA 4832420, is the director of the Aviation Division for the Kansas Department of Transportation and a private pilot who has been flying for four years, acquiring 300 hours.


You can find additional information about the dangers and effects of carbon monoxide poisoning at the following links:

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again," " Trapped Above Paradise," in the December issue of AOPA Pilot.


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Posted Wednesday, November 16, 2005 5:09:38 PM