Never Again

Paper or plastic

October 1, 2011

It was a warm sunny Sunday morning at Fullerton Municipal Airport. My wife and I had spent a wonderful two days aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, soaking up the ambiance of transatlantic travel from a bygone era.

The flight plan was open, the preflight had been normal, and the runup uneventful. I pushed in the throttle on Speedbird, my 2001 Cessna 182T, and we accelerated down Runway 24. About 50 feet above the runway, a large white plastic supermarket bag floated across Speedbird’s path. The prop immediately shredded the bag with seemingly no ill effects. However, at about 400 feet there was the inevitable smell of burning plastic accompanied by a strange, almost imperceptible, change in the vibration signature of the aircraft.

At 600 feet I made my decision to return to the airport. I called the tower and asked for an immediate return to the field. They seemed a little busy with other traffic so I called “pan-pan,” which got their immediate attention. I was cleared to land on any runway.

The downwind and landing were uneventful. After I had turned off the engine a group of very helpful local pilots gathered around the airplane and helped me remove the cowlings. It took a while to find, but the problem appeared to be that a rubber mount holding the bottom cowling in place had perished, and that it wasn’t anything to do with the plastic bag after all. Talking with a local mechanic I was assured that the perished rubber mount was no big problem and I could fly safely home to Hayward and get it fixed there. We put the airplane back together and departed for home.

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The flight was normal, apart from my sense that something wasn’t right and my very poor flying technique. Surely the issue was the bottom engine cowling was not secured properly, but that didn’t stop me from watching the engine gauges so intently that I almost forgot to fly the airplane.

By Friday the airplane was fixed (or so I thought) and by the following weekend we were ready to fly again. This time it was lunch at Harris Ranch, a small airport next to a truck stop on Interstate 5 about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. My wife, daughter, and youngest son were on board. Preflight was uneventful, runup was normal, and takeoff seemed fine. However, during the climbing 270 departure—standard noise abatement procedure at Hayward—as I reduced the throttle to climb power, the mixture and manifold pressure became strangely uncoordinated. I struggled to get things adjusted properly and continued the climb. At cruise altitude I tried to set the engine controls, but again things didn’t seem right. Then there was that strange feeling again that the engine vibrations weren’t normal.

“Get there at all cost” set in. I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter, who was to meet her boyfriend at Harris Ranch. I convinced myself everything was really fine.

When it was time to leave for home, the engine started fine. I started on the runup checklist: right mag, then left mag. When I switched the left mag the engine almost stopped. I tried a few adjustments, such as leaning the mixture to see if there was carbon around the plugs, but the second time I switched to the left mag the engine did stop. The left magneto had completely failed, and it had probably failed just after takeoff in Hayward. It had very probably been slowly failing since Fullerton the previous weekend. Why had I not simply returned to Hayward, put the airplane on the ground, and had a mechanic check it over? Now I was stuck more than 120 miles from home at an airport with no services other than a gas pump.

We stayed overnight, and the following morning I found a mechanic at Visalia who was willing to come over. We left the airplane in his good hands and got a ride home. I think this was the first time I realized how far away from home you can get very quickly in a small aircraft. The fight was 56 minutes; the drive home was more than three hours.

When the mechanic called two days later he said the left magneto had failed because the wrong parts had been installed at the last overhaul. When the right mag was stripped, it too had the wrong parts. They had both lasted about 300 hours since the overhaul, but apparently had both been on the verge of failure for quite a while. Two weeks, and a few dollars later, Speedbird was back in its hangar at Hayward and running fine.

This story might not be quite as exciting as some of the “Never Again” stories, but I learned a lot.

First, don’t be afraid to call pan-pan or mayday. There are lots of folks out there who are willing and able to help you when you have a problem. I also learned that when something doesn’t feel right, it very likely isn’t right. Put the airplane on the ground and get a good mechanic to check it out. Don’t let the mission seduce you into continuing when things aren’t right.

Andy Clark, AOPA 3950274, is a commercial pilot with single and multiengine instrument ratings.