I received a complete briefing for my morning flight from Traverse City to Olney, Illinois, where I would inspect an oilfield service rig for a potential purchase. Traverse City and Olney were severe clear, so I elected to make the trip VFR in my Mooney and fly direct with GPS assistance. After climbing to 10,500 feet, I turned on the autopilot and set about updating my Jeppesen charts.
It was very cold at altitude, so I ran the cabin heat wide open until I noticed a very distinct hot, burning odor. I immediately shut off the cabin heat and continued to update the charts. The thought of the burning odor was still nagging me as I opened the heater again, but the smell seemed to have subsided (at least I wanted to think so). I had just started out over Lake Michigan at a point just west of Muskegon when I noticed that a solid cloud layer had formed over the land where the water met the shore. No problem, I wasn't going that direction anyway.
But as I headed out over the icy waters of Lake Michigan, a very loud bang followed by extremely violent vibrations that seemed capable of causing the airplane and engine to depart in separate directions got my immediate attention. I immediately pulled the throttle to idle and was about to pull the mixture to kill the engine also, but the vibrations subsided to a tolerable level, and I decided to keep the engine running. I pressed the "nearest" button on my GPS, and it appeared at least two airports were in gliding range. I trimmed the airplane for best glide and turned east to get Lake Michigan out from under me.
After the initial shock had passed, I began to assess the situation, and I decided that not only was I going to survive this setback, but I might as well get the airplane to an airport that could fix the problem — although I had still no idea what that problem was. Muskegon had nice long runways for my proposed dead-stick landing, so I contacted Muskegon approach and told them I had a problem and was intending to land in Muskegon. I was very surprised by their response: "Do you want to declare an emergency, and would you like emergency vehicles?" I responded "no" to both questions.
I was holding as much altitude as the airspeed would allow and turned northeast for an ILS approach to Runway 24. As I started a nice sweeping turn to the southeast to intersect the ILS I believed that I had enough altitude to make the runway — I was actually high. But, I had another item to deal with first: The overcast I had noticed before was now between the runway and me. I would have to fly through it to land, and it was a good thing I was instrument rated and current, and the airplane was well equipped for IFR.
I was five miles out on the ILS but still quite high at 5,000 feet when ATC asked if I had the airport in sight. I looked down at the solid layer just below and quickly responded, "No, not just yet." I entered the overcast at about 4,500 feet and broke out at about 3,500 feet. Muskegon was right where it belonged, straight ahead and three miles out. ATC asked again if I had the runway in sight and if I needed emergency vehicles. I responded that I could see the airport and would not need emergency assistance.
The approach and landing were uneventful, but as I tried to increase the throttle for taxi, the violent vibrations began again. I managed to get the airplane to the ramp. As I shut down the engine, the FBO employee who had guided me into position for parking looked as if he had seen a ghost. As the propeller came to a stop. I could see that a piece of the spinner had broken off. It now likely resides at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
As I inspected the spinner, a man approached and asked me several questions about my problem flight and subsequent unplanned landing in Muskegon. He identified himself as being with the FAA. He had been in the tower investigating another incident when I first called in with my problem. He was very nice and offered a ferry permit if I wanted to fly somewhere else with the spinner removed completely. I thanked him for the offer but opted to have a new spinner flown in and repaired at Muskegon.
I rented a car and drove home to Traverse City. After the repairs were completed a few days later, I drove back and flew to Olney as planned.
So what had caused the problem? I discovered that by having the spinner chromed, I had caused it to become weakened and brittle. I now have a polished spinner. Not as easy to keep looking great, but a lot easier to keep attached to the airplane.
I learned a few lessons from that flight some 10 years ago.
When you suspect something is amiss, land and check it out. The hot, burning odor I had thought was related to the cabin heater turned out to be the spinner burning away the fiberglass cowling.
Inspect the spinner and hub during preflight, as I now do before every flight.
I sure was lucky that day.
Ed Haines, AOPA 891874, is an oil- and gas-well drilling consultant residing in Michigan. He holds a private pilot certificate with commercial and instrument ratings. In more than 20 years of flying he has accumulated more than 2,200 hours of flight time, mostly in his Mooney M20.
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