I was returning to Frederick, Maryland, from Winter Haven, Florida. My Velocity’s Lycoming IO-360 had been unusually hard to start in Winter Haven, almost causing me to miss my IFR departure window.
After a quick break and fuel stop in Waycross, Georgia, the Velocity was again very hard to start. Approximately halfway between Waycross and Lumberton, North Carolina, the engine shuddered, and then returned to normal. Scanning the instruments, I found nothing unusual. The engine then began a vibration that was anything but normal.
A 90-degree left turn would put me on a direct line for Columbia, South Carolina. I had stopped there several times in the past. Twice, Eagle Aviation had performed maintenance on my Velocity. The question, however, was whether or not I should put it down sooner than the 30 minutes it would take to get to Columbia Municipal.
I was at 5,500 feet and getting VFR flight following. I told Center I was deviating and why and informed them I was going to try to climb. The airplane got to 6,000 feet and would go no higher. One small airport after another passed below me—and Center pointed them out. As I approached each one, I reevaluated my situation.
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Over and over I thought: The airplane is flying…there is a vibration of unknown origin…I’ve lost EGT on cylinders one and three…I can maintain altitude…it won’t climb above 6,000…there is no change in oil pressure, temperature, CHT, or fuel pressure…airspeed has not changed appreciably…here comes another airport landing opportunity. I’m now “x” minutes closer to Columbia where I know and trust maintenance….
Center passed me to Columbia Approach. “Velocity One-Tango-Romeo, I understand you are having a problem of some kind?”
“Affirmative, One-Tango-Romeo has a rough engine and power loss.”
“One-Tango-Romeo, how many souls on board and what is your fuel status?” Now I, the only soul aboard, knew Approach was running her emergency checklist whether I had declared an emergency or not.
As I got within five miles of Columbia, I accepted a descent to 2,500 feet, but did not reduce power to get there. The tower cleared me to land and asked, “Do you want the equipment rolled?”
“Negative on the equipment, but I will come in a little faster than usual as I do not want to reduce power until the last moment.”
I greased it on and made the first turnoff. I got out of the airplane at Eagle expecting to see the worst. I had the cowling off by the time the A&P arrived. The air intake to cylinder one was no longer attached to the engine. The bolts were in the bottom of the cowling, both washers were missing, and there were nicks in two of the three prop blades directly in line with the exhaust. Oil was everywhere. The Garlock seal on the vacuum pump was leaking oil, and that seemed to be the primary source of the mess.
Sunday became Monday, then Tuesday as damage was found and repaired. Finally, Tuesday afternoon the A&P and I pushed my Velocity out to start it up. It would not start. We pulled it back into the hangar and checked the compression on all of the cylinders. Number three had no compression.
I flew commercially back to Maryland. The following week was filled with phone calls and emailed pictures. Cylinder three’s intake valve had lost approximately one-third of its face. Over the next two months I approved replacement of the cylinder, a magneto, the venturi—and, ultimately, spent 15 percent of the airplane’s value repairing the damage. Was all of this damage caused by my decision to fly 30 minutes to Columbia instead of taking the nearest airport?
The left wing was pulled to replace the cylinder. Pulling the wing exposed some fiberglass de-lamination of the main spar. So, with Velocity factory approval, after picking up my airplane from Eagle I flew it to its birthplace in Sebastian, Florida, for that repair.
A Velocity is a pusher. It is impossible to see the engine from the cockpit. Unlike a tractor configuration, understanding what is happening in the engine comes from instrument interpretation with no help from direct observation. Was I trailing smoke? Was I on fire? The aileron and rudder cables run through the engine compartment—a fire could have caused me to lose control.
I did maintain altitude and landed safely on two cylinders, but did not definitively know what was wrong during the last 30 minutes of flight. My decision to continue to Columbia probably resulted in increased damage, but Eagle’s master A&P found the main spar delamination, which I suspect would not have been found by someone less skilled and experienced.
After installing a JPI EDM 800 engine monitor I finally understood why cylinder three’s intake valve broke. On climbout during the after-installation test flight, cylinder three, followed by two, then four all went over redline CHT. In fact, this “clearly incorrect engine monitor” said those cylinders were running at 550 degrees F. Only cylinder one was cool—it indicated 350 degrees. A call to Velocity revealed I had the “original cooling system,” shown to be ineffective. After installing a new cooling system, the JPI reported all cylinders well in the green. At the time of the incident my CHT gauge only measured the temperature on cylinder one. Because I was monitoring only one CHT—the engine’s coolest cylinder—I had been unknowingly cooking my engine.
I’m not sure if I am a better aviator because of this experience—or in spite of it. The best I can say is that I thought the situation through based on the evidence at hand, made a decision, had a backup plan ready to execute, and ultimately had a good outcome.
Col. Tony Rizzo, AOPA 661104, is an active-duty U.S. Air Force flight surgeon who directs the National Center for Medical Intelligence. He owns a Velocity and has logged more than 1,200 hours as PIC.