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Former 'rusty pilot' calmly handles engine failureFormer 'rusty pilot' calmly handles engine failure

‘Uneventful’ landing for Nate Abel Flying Club member‘Uneventful’ landing for Nate Abel Flying Club member

There’s no convenient time for an engine failure–but a rusty pilot’s first solo after returning to active flying is much less than ideal. “My initial reaction when the engine started running rough was to ask myself, ‘What did you forget to do?’” said Wendell Alumbaugh, 77, who was flying the Reimagined Cessna 150 that AOPA donated to the Nate Abel Flying Club in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2016.

Nate Abel Flying Club members disassembled the Continental engine on the Reimagined Cessna 150 and sent it to Aircraft Engine & Accessory Co. in Dallas for overhaul. Photo courtesy of the Nate Abel Flying Club.

“I wasn’t overly excited, or scared, or panicky,” he said. “I just ran through the normal items to determine whether I’d made a mistake or overlooked something. Nothing seemed to help.”

It turns out that Alumbaugh had done nothing wrong. The 100-horsepower Continental engine had suffered an exhaust valve failure. One of its four cylinders was clogged with metal debris, and the engine was damaged and losing power.

Alumbaugh was a few miles north of the club’s home at Hicks Airfield and flying toward it—but the airplane was shaking and couldn’t hold altitude. He turned north to the nearest airport, Kenneth Copeland Airport, which has a 5,900-foot runway.

The surface wind was light, and he made a straight-in approach to Runway 35.

“The airport was right where I needed it to be,” he said. “The landing itself was uneventful.”

Nate Abel Flying Club member Wendell Alumbaugh was flying the Reimagined Cessna 150 when an engine exhaust valve failed during his first solo flight after emerging from rusty pilot status. Photo courtesy of Wendell Alumbaugh.

Once on the ground, Alumbaugh shut down and noticed oil dripping from the engine cowl. He notified the club and arranged for a ride back to Hicks Airport.

A close examination of the engine showed the piston in the failed cylinder was completely destroyed, and it had spread metal debris throughout the engine. It would have to be taken apart and overhauled.

The club has been growing rapidly since it was founded in 2016, and the knowledge that the yellow Cessna 150 nicknamed Tweety Bird would be down for weeks got the club to put its search for a second airplane into high gear.

Club members disassembled the Continental engine and sent it to Aircraft Engine and Accessory Co. in Dallas for overhaul. It had just over 512 hours at the time of failure. Meanwhile, they have started a GoFundMe webpage and received a $5,000 donation (from someone who wishes to remain anonymous) to help pay for the repair.

Alumbaugh said he has taken some good-natured ribbing from his fellow club members. “I got a text right after this happened telling me I sure am hard on equipment,” he recalled.

Alumbaugh learned to fly at age 19 and was a commercial pilot and flight instructor before leaving aviation in 1965 for a career in the computer industry. He retired from that profession in 2001.

Last year he got interested in flying again, mostly out of curiosity about whether he could still do it. He had logged about 1,000 hours during his youth, but made his last landing in 1971.

Getting back into the air meant learning a great deal about airspace, regulations, GPS, and radio use. His previous flight experience was mostly in low-tech airplanes, many of which didn’t have radios.

“I was pretty comfortable taking off and landing right from the start,” he said. “But the avionics had changed so much that about the only part of the cockpit I recognized was the seat.”

Alumbaugh said he’ll have no hesitation to return to flying when the Cessna 150’s overhauled engine is installed.

“I’m looking forward to getting back on that horse,” he said. “I wish (the engine failure) hadn’t happened. But since it did, the club has really pulled together to make the best of it.”
Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
Topics: Overhaul, Pilots, Piston

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