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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Spot some oil?

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 things stop working.

On December 20, 2002, a pilot flying in a Piper Cherokee Six and his four passengers 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 said he could make it to Macon, and he was given a direct heading.

He then told Atlanta Approach that he had "lost his engine," and had smoke in the cockpit. ATC then suggested Herbert Smart Airport, which was 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 I-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. The pilot and three passengers were killed when the Cherokee Six hit trees in a heavily wooded area. One passenger suffered minor injuries.

The surviving passenger remembered the engine stopping, and the pilot trying to restart it. After that was unsuccessful, the pilot told the passengers to brace themselves because they were going to hit some trees. 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. Approximately one-half of a quart of engine oil was recovered from the 12-quart engine oil system. A line mechanic that 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 told the mechanic that he would look into it later. The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the loss of engine power caused by oil starvation.

The engine is the heart of an airplane. If you suspect any mechanical problem, it's far better to delay your flight and have a mechanic inspect the engine than to depart and experience catastrophic results. 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 free 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.

Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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