Never Again: A slap in the face

Shortcuts prove tempting on a cold night

May 1, 2013

Never Again May 2013 

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 Way back in 1961, I acquired a Navion. I loved the way it looked. I loved its stability, and I never lost the thrill of dumping those barn-door flaps, on a calm day, and going almost straight down without gaining any airspeed. What a rush!

On a beautiful warm day in January 1962, my father and I took off from the Fullerton Municipal Airport in Orange County, California, on the first leg of a planned round-trip business flight to Saginaw, Michigan. We crossed the southern edge of the Painted Desert, stopping at the first of several fueling points, and continued on with nothing out of the ordinary until my snoozing dad sat bolt upright with a “What’s that!?” at the abrupt silence when I let the right tank run dry before switching to the remaining hour of fuel in the left tank. It was hilarious, and we laughed about it for years afterward.

Only two fuel stops are vivid in my memory. In St. Louis, we both caught a late-night nap on the top of a flight-planning table. We decided to catch a few winks and get out again by around 4 a.m., and it seemed like only a few minutes until dad was shaking me and saying, “Hey, it’s 4 a.m. Let’s go find something to eat.” So, struggling to wake up, we walked for about 10 minutes until we found an all-night diner.

I glanced up at a clock on the wall and saw that it said 12:40. Figuring the clock was wrong (my watch was in my flight bag), I asked the waitress for the time. Looking up at the clock, she said, “It’s right there, sweetie, 12:41.” We had slept for one hour and 20 minutes. Twenty minutes past midnight looked like 4 a.m. to my bleary-eyed dad!

Our last stop at the now-closed Meigs Field, on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline, is where the reality of winter slapped us in the face. It was so cold that dad stayed inside the airplane during the refueling, while I ran inside to pay the tab. Having left instructions with the line guy to top it off and check the oil, I returned to fire up the Continental E-225 as fast as possible, going directly from the warm FBO office into the cockpit without passing go or collecting $200. A glance told me the cowl was buttoned down, which was all the assurance I needed.

Our final destination was the FBO at Tri-City Airport between Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland, Michigan—now MBS International Airport—and, since it was well past midnight when we lifted off, and since I wasn’t instrument rated, and since I had long before developed a total cowardice of flying over large bodies of water without a spare engine on board—especially at night—we stayed within gliding distance of the shoreline as we headed northeast on the great chicken circle route.

By the time we reached altitude and had the beacon in sight at Tri-City—we were still over the lake—I noticed that the oil pressure needle was moving slowly but surely to the left. (You may already know what’s coming.) Since the engine was purring beautifully and all the other needles were where they should be, I wasn’t too concerned. Then, just as we cleared the lake and were on a direct course for Tri-City, all the electricals shut down with a barely audible thump. Everything went dim at once and, realizing we were draining the battery, I shut off the master switch and kept the Tri-City beacon on the nose. (Oh, I also continued to fly the airplane and dad was still asleep.) The remainder of the final leg went by without further notice, and, if memory serves me, there was no operating tower at that time of the night.

We landed without problem; with plenty of battery left for lights and gear, we taxied up to a hangar and shut down. As I stepped out of the sliding canopy, imagine my surprise when I saw that the side of the airplane—from the back of the cowl to the tail—was covered in oil. Opening the cowl and looking inside, there—resting on a narrow metal ledge, looking accusingly back up at me—was the oil filler cap, right where the line guy had left it after putting in a quart; right where I had failed to look before taking off because my fingers and feet were a little chilly. The leaking oil had caused a short.

There was no repair shop at Tri-City. The next morning I took off solo to go the short distance to Saginaw Municipal for what was to be a wash job and engine steam cleaning, but turned out to include the replacement of a cylinder that blew out as I landed at Saginaw.

It is readily obvious what I learned: No matter how much of a hurry you may be in, or how much you have on your mind, or whether your arms are loaded, do not get into the airplane, start it up, taxi to the active runway, and take off without first doing a complete preflight—including looking at and touching the oil filler cap to make sure it is snug.

I have gone over the “what ifs” time and time again. What if it had not been a beautiful clear night and, because of reduced visibility, I had not had the Tri-City beacon on the nose and could only do an occasional radio check? What if I had decided to go on to Detroit the next morning after concluding our early morning business meeting, as some wanted us to do, instead of getting the airplane detailed with a complete wash job? Emergency blown-jug landing, anyone?

Therefore, even though you have heard it many times before, every flight should begin with a thorough preflight inspection, without exception—and a look under the cowl after refueling.

Mel Calvert has been flying since 1954, accumulating more than 2,600 hours. He is the author of How I Quit Smoking and Lived to Tell About It.