The Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz isn't the only object made of metal that needs oil to function properly. When your airplane engine doesn't get enough oil, metal grinds against metal and bad things happen.
On December 20, 2002, a pilot and his four passengers flying in a Piper Cherokee Six left Columbus, Ohio, on an instrument cross-country flight. Three hours into the flight, the pilot called Atlanta Approach and declared an emergency. He was told that Macon Regional Airport was at 12 o'clock and 15 miles. The pilot responded that he could make it to Macon. He was given a direct heading.
He then told Atlanta Approach that he was having engine trouble and had smoke in the cockpit. ATC then suggested Herbert Smart Airport, which was at 11 o'clock and 13 miles. The pilot told ATC that he was trying to hold altitude at 4,500 feet but was descending.
Five minutes after declaring the emergency, the pilot was told that Interstate 75 was off to his right. He answered that he was at 2,200 feet, had a "total loss of engine power," and wasn't going to make the airport. Two minutes later, the flight disappeared from radar. The pilot and three of the passengers were killed when the Cherokee Six hit trees in a heavily wooded area. One passenger sustained only minor injuries.
In post-crash interviews, the surviving passenger remembered the engine stopping and the pilot desperately trying to restart it. After all restart efforts were unsuccessful, the pilot told the passengers to brace themselves because they were going to crash into trees below. The passenger was able to escape before the aircraft burst into flames.
The inside of the engine case had scoring damage, and the connecting rods and pistons showed signs of heat distress. About a half quart of engine oil was recovered from the 12-quart oil system. A line mechanic who had serviced a gear strut before the accident flight had told the pilot that there was oil leaking from under the engine cowling onto the nosewheel pant. The pilot responded that he would look into it later.
The NTSB determined the cause of this accident was the loss of engine power because of oil starvation.
The engine is the heart of an airplane. If you suspect any mechanical problems, its far better to delay your flight and have a mechanic inspect the engine than to depart and chance a major mechanical failure. It's possible this accident could have been prevented if the pilot had asked the mechanic to look more closely for the source of the oil leak.
Take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Engine and Propeller online course to learn more about engine and propeller operation and maintenance. A better understanding of engine and propeller operation can help minimize dangerous wear and costly repairs and prevent future accidents.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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