Weather and Flight Experience
I left Orlando Executive for West Palm Beach around 8:30 a.m. midweek last summer. It was definitely IFR with ceilings around 750' and 2 miles. After getting weather and looking at the radar picture, the go-no go decision was made to launch. My destination was VFR and would stay that way for most of the day. Here in Florida if you wait around for 15 minutes the weather will change. So we learn to give weather, specifically T-storms, lots of respect.
I filed for the straightest route there, and that usually means you ask and they give something else. Since I have flown this route a few times before, I was ready to copy a different clearance. Sure enough I was jotting down new SIDs and new frequencies.
I was flying a PA-28R and it had full IFR capabilities, but there was not a GPS aboard. Early on in my flying training I decided it was prudent to have backups to most of my flight gear. In fact I suggested to one of the flight bag manufacturers that a cool ad campaign would be to have pilots write in or e-mail what they carried in their bags. It would be called "What'cha Haulin!" I for one carry a backup handheld, portable GPS, first aid, cell phone, 3 flashlights, a leatherman and food and water. Yes, I do a weight and balance because of my flight bag.
I get all my gear and myself into the plane and preflight. Since I can only afford to rent, I do a careful preflight inspection and on IFR days I make it my mission to use my checklists to not miss a thing. So it takes me 40 minutes to preflight, get loaded and get in, get ATIS, get my clearance on my handheld and start the plane.
On my way out of the tie down I look at gauges carefully and listen to the engine. A lot of the time you can tell something is wrong just from taking a moment to listen. And I swear by something - if it sounds or feels wrong then most likely it is. So whenever I hear or feel that way, I make the decision to stop and take a second look.
Well, on this day nothing seemed out of place. The plane felt good, still smelled bad, but everything seemed to be working as advertised. I do my checklist for the run-up and everything is dialed in. I check all my radios the way I was taught from my instrument instructors Diego and Ray. And I do a mental personal flight check evaluation before I leave the run-up area. I make sure, one last time, I am up to par to fly in the conditions advertised.
I get my clearance to depart and take my spot on the runway as close to the departure end solid white line as I can. See, I figure if they let me have the runway for 8 minutes, I own it, right? So I take it all! Normally I like to do a quick run up of the engine on the runway just before release to make sure the engine is going to produce full power. On this flight I did not do this. I also think about and review my emergency procedures, just in case the engine decides to not play along.
I release and start down the runway. Just before release I start my scan and "acquire the panel". It is all looking good. I rotate, look for positive rate of climb, get best rate going and retract the gear at the departure end of the runway. We are looking good. I transition to the SID, get clearance to go to departure. It was just after getting my second turn in IFR conditions, while being vectored across and above Orlando International Airport, that I noticed a vibration that was a little different. I could feel it in the right rudder pedal and in the seat of my pants. I was climbing to 3000" and not sure what I was feeling. As I was given the last turn to fly over OIA, I added a little power and something gave way. The airplane started to shake violently and was losing power at the same time. I tried bringing the power back to lessen the vibrations and I could not maintain the 3000' foot I was cleared for. While I was doing the mental gymnastics to see if I forgot to do something, I said the dreaded "E" word. I declared an emergency.
On this day I happened to get my friend, Gary, a.k.a. "GR" in the ATC world. Gary and I have flown together and he understands the world from our perspective. After I told him I was declaring and emergency, right above OIA, his voice took on a completely different sound. We were now talking in conversational tones like on the telephone.
I told Gary that I was losing power; I was getting serious vibration and could not hold altitude. He asked passengers on board, fuel status and my intentions. I said I was still IFR and did not think I could reach any appreciable distance. I did not want the engine to quit completely and told Gary that. I asked if he could steer me back to Orlando Executive for runway 7. He said he could do that or anything else that I needed. So he starts the vectors back to Executive. The plane is shaking so much that is very hard to concentrate on my scan. I keep thinking the engine or some other part is going to come off. I also think about the headlines on the news and my picture, the handsome one from high school flashes on the screen, and all my friends do that sigh about how flying is so dangerous.
Gary keeps me focused on flying the plane by giving me small turns and asking if the engine is getting worse. Surprisingly, it is not. But it is still bad at the reduced power setting. I start to set up for the ILS 7 approach into Executive and the ceiling is now 500" and 1.5 mile visibility. Gary tells me this after I establish on the inbound course. I hit the outer marker, wonder if I should time it and try my best to stay focused. Gary says to stay with him a little longer and when I get on the ground to call him in the Tracon building. I get the plane all set, keep about 20 inches and fly the approach at 90.
Just about 2 miles Gary wishes me good luck and I go to tower. Tower clears me to land, but I have not broken out at 750" and keep telling myself not to look until 310'. I know that I cannot do a missed and I am as completely committed to this approach and landing as humanly possible. The needles are shaking, the engine is shaking, and I am shaking and remembered that my instructor, Diego, would say to me that you must aviate, navigate and communicate to fly. So I keep aviating.
Right at 500' and a mile, I see the rabbit and I look up for the first time. It is a sucker hole because I am enveloped back in the clouds. In that split second I drop below the glide slope and the runway comes into full view. I see it all like I am in a tunnel and think how odd that is. I remember from my training to look around at the end of the runway to get the whole picture. I can see the emergency trucks and wonder why they are there.
I touch down pull the power all the way back and the engine quits as I turn off the active on to Delta. The "pucker power" was at an all time high on this flight. What we found out was that the right rear cylinder was backing off the four mounting lugs and the entire assembly was banging against the block.