The February Wisconsin day was cold and sunny. The outside air temperature was near zero degrees Fahrenheit as my wife, Karen, and I prepared to take our twin-engine Piper Seneca on a weekend trip to Lake Placid, New York. Knowing the next morning would be cold, I had asked the line crew the night before to keep the aircraft in a heated hangar overnight.
The trip from Madison to Lake Placid is approximately 800 nautical miles. That's far enough to require a fuel stop and spousal agreement to make the trip in a small airplane.
It turns out that Bad Axe, Michigan, located in the "thumb" of the state, is a convenient half-way point. We arrived there benefiting from strong westerly tailwinds. The friendly folks at Bad Axe filled the airplane with fuel while I took a look at the beautiful VFR weather forecast for the remainder of the trip, which had been planned to cross Canada, north of Toronto and Lake Ontario.
On the climbout from Bad Axe, I noticed that the left engine's oil pressure was low and the oil temperature was high. Both gauges indicated still in the green — but barely — and clearly different from the usual readings and from the right-engine gauges. Karen is not a big fan of small aircraft, so I didn't mention my concern. I was willing the readings to improve as we made our way across Ontario.
I had previously asked flying friends, "If you were over-flying Canada, would you bring along instrument approach plates for Canada?" Without exception, the response was that there was no need, especially in my case since my aircraft had two Garmin GPS units with IFR approaches readily available. But, about this time into the flight I began to wish I had back-up approach charts, despite the VFR weather. I discreetly pulled out the emergency procedures checklist and began reviewing the steps necessary to shut down the left engine and feather its prop.
About 50 miles west of Toronto with no improvement in the left oil readings, the left vacuum pump failed. Now I was alarmed; low oil pressure, high oil temperature, and a failed vacuum pump — all in the left engine. I was pretty sure the left engine was about to disintegrate, and it was time to alert ATC to the problem and land as soon as possible.
Canadian ATC could not have been more helpful. I indicated that I needed to land at the nearest airport with maintenance facilities, and I described my situation. I received vectors to Waterloo Regional Airport in Kitchener, Ontario, and the controller gave me all the airport data and frequencies. They verified that I was not declaring an emergency, but asked if I wanted emergency equipment on the field. Since everything was still running, I declined the equipment; I was afraid the next request ATC request would be: "Say how may souls on board." I was pretty sure Karen would not want to hear that, and luckily they did not ask.
We arrived over the airport at about 7,000 feet agl. The tower kept all traffic out of my way as I circled over the numbers to lose altitude. An uneventful (if a bit bumpy) landing followed, but now emerged a whole new series of issues.
We had landed in a foreign country without permission, and with no knowledge of Canadian Customs procedures. And, we had an airplane that needed maintenance.
A very nice Customs agent came over to the general aviation terminal from the commercial area. After a quick glance at our Wisconsin driver's licenses, he recommended a good hotel and restaurant in Kitchener.
Meanwhile, the local maintenance shop took a look at the airplane. They said the oil problem was caused by congealed oil in the oil cooler since it was so cold outside. A piece of tape over a portion of the oil cooler was the ticket to fixing that problem. The vacuum pump was broken, but it happened they had just gotten a vacuum pump that morning for the left engine of a Piper Seneca, and they were able to install it in my airplane. Two hours later with great respect for Canadian mechanics and Customs officials, tape across both oil coolers, and a new vacuum pump in the left engine, we were good to go.
But, now since we had landed in Canada, we had to clear U.S. Customs coming back into the United States. Since our destination airport in Saranac Lake, New York, was not a designated airport for U.S. Customs inspection, we changed our flight plan to Massena, New York. At 6 p.m., three U.S. Customs agents and a drug-sniffing dog met us at the deserted and nontowered Massena International-Richards Field. The agents asked all the usual border crossing questions and then had us wait in the terminal as the dog examined our airplane.
A quick hop from Massena to Saranac Lake was followed by a cab ride to Lake Placid, and we finally arrived at our lodge only four hours later than originally planned. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend in Lake Placid, where they were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1980 Olympics. Our flight home included quite a bit of time in icing conditions, so I was happy to have two working vacuum pumps as they also inflate the deice boots on my aircraft.
What did I learn from this?
First, I will now carry approach charts for foreign airspace over-flights, even if it is only in electronic form on my laptop.
Second, I will not wait so long to decide to divert. Our problem turned out to be benign, but wasting valuable time can be your enemy.
Third, I will not hesitate to declare an emergency; it gives the controllers the flexibility to route other traffic without complicating matters further.
This ended up being a very positive experience. My wife, a previously nervous passenger, is now more comfortable flying. Perhaps seeing how well the system responds to incidents made a difference.
James Berbee, AOPA 4705523, is a multiengine instrument-rated pilot with more than 700 hours of flight time. He owns a 1979 Piper Seneca and flies Angel Flight volunteer missions.
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