The weather forecast was good, with clearing skies typical of winter weather patterns in New England. I had booked my favorite Cessna 182 Skylane for an afternoon flight out of Laurence G. Hanscom Field, Bedford, Massachusetts, to Bangor International Airport, Maine. I had been logging a lot of hours lately in an American Champion Super Decathlon doing an aerobatics course, and I was looking forward to spending some time again in the Cessna in which I had accumulated most of my flight time. If all went well, I would touch down before sunset.
As I walked out across the tarmac, a subzero breeze blew across my face and I instinctively lowered my cap. Upon approaching N222AS, I noticed that the oil filler compartment door was in the upright position. This was odd. I had never seen an aircraft on the line unattended in this state. I opened the cabin door and started unloading my gear. Once inside the cockpit, I radioed the flight school where I had rented the airplane and asked for a lineperson to preheat the engine. I continued to unpack my gear, opened the sectional charts, and started my preflight checklist.
Within moments, one of the service trucks arrived. As the driver got out of the cab, I waved him over and opened my window to ask about the oil filler compartment door. He apologized immediately and said he had left it open because he had needed to put in a quart of oil. I returned to my preflight checklist and looked up in time to see him close it. As I walked around the aircraft moments later, the blanket covering the cowling blocked access to the oil filler compartment. I asked the lineman how many quarts of oil were in the engine, and he responded, "About eight." "Perfect," I thought. With a bone-chilling breeze blowing against my body, I climbed back into the cockpit. A few moments later the preheat was complete, and I fired up the engine. After receiving instructions to taxi to the active runway, I requested flight-following service to Bangor.
The engine runup went off without a hitch, and 10 minutes later, I was climbing through 1,500 feet on my way to 7,500 feet for what looked like a perfect late-afternoon flight to Maine. With typical precision, Hanscom Tower handed me off to Boston Approach, and I reported my position and altitude. Following a brief pause, I was cleared through the Boston Class B airspace. I pitched the aircraft for a 750-fpm climb at 85 knots.
Suddenly I noticed what appeared to be fluid accumulating around the oil filler door. I paused for a second so my brain could register what I was seeing. My immediate thought was that the lineman had spilled some oil around the opening, and the airflow through the engine compartment was now forcing this oil through the small gap in the cover. I checked the oil pressure indicator, which registered a bit low but still in the green arc. I looked out again and noticed that there was now more fluid forming tiny waves on the cowling. These waves were slowly working their way across the cowling toward me. Whatever was happening was not good.
Fortunately, I plan my flights around airports along my route of flight. Eight nautical miles ahead of me was Lawrence Municipal Airport, and I decided that I needed to get on the ground immediately. At that moment Boston Approach came on the radio to instruct me to change frequencies. I responded, "Boston, Cessna 222AS needs to make a precautionary landing at Lawrence. I have oil accumulating on the cowling and may need to declare an emergency." After realizing that I had never landed at Lawrence Municipal Airport, I added, "Please advise as to the Lawrence Tower frequency."
After tuning the proper frequency, I advised Lawrence Tower of my problem. I was given immediate clearance to land on Runway 32. As I went through the before-landing checklist in my mind, I also gave some thought to what I would do if the engine suddenly quit. I had enough altitude so an off-airport landing could presumably be avoided. All I wanted to do was get on the ground. Following an unimpressive landing in gusty crosswind conditions, I asked the Tower for permission to exit on the nearest taxiway and shut down.
Shaken, I exited the cockpit and went to inspect the cowling. Oil had traveled almost to the windscreen, and I also noticed oil leaking onto the ground from the nose-gear strut. I opened the oil filler compartment door and was dumbstruck to find that I didn't have an oil filler cover. Somewhere back at Hanscom one of the linepersons was driving around with the 182's oil dipstick on the front seat. I immediately chastised myself for not verifying the lineman's work prior to my departure. I also realized that I had been incredibly lucky. At 6 feet 2 inches, I have a better view over the cowling than most. A shorter pilot might not have caught the problem until the low-oil-pressure warning light was flashing. In the dark, the problem would have been even further compounded. Two hours later the missing part arrived, and I was relieved to find that I had only lost one and a half quarts of oil. I decided to scrub my flight plan and returned to Hanscom in the dark to practice some night landings.
I am eternally grateful to the lineman who taught me a relatively inexpensive but invaluable lesson. Always check the oil.
Peter A. Gish, AOPA 457140, is a private pilot with more than 250 hours of flight time, working on his seaplane rating. He owns an Extra 300.
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Look for the latest installment of "Never Again," in the January issue of AOPA Pilot. The story relates several chilling encounters during a cross-country flight in mountainous terrain.
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