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Flying Life: Not just ‘those pilots’

An emergency hits close to home

When you hear scary stories about aviation emergencies, how do you continue to climb into your airplane day after day knowing there’s a real possibility that something like an engine failure or electrical fire could happen to you?

My coping mechanism has often been to tell myself I’m safe because I would never make the same mistakes as those pilots. This method works just fine until the bad thing happens to a friend, a person I respect as a consummate professional aviator. In short, it could have happened to anyone. It could have happened to…me.

But for you readers who don’t know Katie George like I do, you might be able to go on pretending you are immune. So you know that she’s a real person, and not some faceless pilot, let me describe her. She has wavy blond hair and blue eyes. She reads psychological thrillers on the airport couch on rainy days. She loves mint chocolate chip ice cream and grew up with a pet guinea pig named Fluffy. She has an easy laugh that you can hear all the way down the hall, and has never met a stranger. If you knew her, you’d want to be her friend.

Let me tell you what happened to your new friend, Katie: As a flight instructor, she observed her student do a preflight on a Cessna 152, before they took off for a local lesson to the practice area. On run-up, all indications were normal, but because it was cold and humid, she and her student discussed the possibility of carburetor ice and did a takeoff emergency briefing. On the climbout, they noticed a slight drop in rpm.

“You still have the throttle all the way in, right?” Katie confirmed with her student.

Within seconds, the rpm dropped further, and Katie took control of the airplane. At 500 feet agl and with zero time for hesitation or troubleshooting, Katie made a 180-degree turn and informed tower she was landing. By the time she was facing the runway again, the propeller had completely stopped. She heard the stall horn intermittently, but felt secure enough in their gliding capability that she continued to stretch it, landing without injury or damage about 1,000 feet down the runway. Maintenance towed the airplane in, while Katie said mankind’s most authentic prayer (God, thank you for letting me live) and decided to take the rest of the day off.

The next morning, without yet knowing why that engine had failed, Katie forced herself to get back in the air with another student in a different airplane. I saw her in the runup pad and marveled at her courage, which is most definitely, as Nelson Mandela said, not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

What caused the engine to fail? After the incident, the mechanic pulled multiple sump cups of water out of the strainer drain. But they sumped the fuel before the flight! The rational part of me that demands fairness and explanations cannot let that detail go. My friend was standing right there, making sure a thorough preflight was conducted. She did everything the way she was supposed to. Katie will never know if her student’s sump cup had a water bubble in it that they missed, or if the sump cup was completely full of water and therefore no separation of water and fuel would have been visible, or if the water that made it into the engine never actually made it into the sump cup, but had settled in another spot in the wing.

Here are the things I’m taking away from our friend’s story. When I sump the fuel now, I get out from under the shade of the wing and hold that thing up in the light against the white paint of the fuselage. Sometimes it doesn’t look all that blue, so you can also do a smell test to confirm that a strong fuel smell is present. You can also sump small amounts from several sumps into one cup, so that if one sump is all water, hopefully another spot will have all fuel and you will get a clearly visible separation of good stuff from bad stuff. However, as numerous studies have shown, you can take all these precautions and still end up with enough water in the tank to cause engine trouble. In no activity can risk ever be minimized to nil.

Even though it was zero fun to lose an engine on climbout, the story ends well, in part, because a competent pilot was at the controls. Katie did a verbal pre-takeoff brief so when that engine quit producing power, she knew exactly what to do without hesitation. She relied on her training and her experience in the airplane and managed to get herself and her student safely on the ground. Many, many pilots have not been so fortunate. And perhaps the biggest takeaway of all is that Katie got back in the air the very next day. Flying frequently demands much of us: skill and proficiency and sometimes extraordinary amounts of courage.

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