Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Day 12 Summary

Serious stuff today, folks.

This post brought to you from Lethbridge, Alberta, instead of someplace in Montana or the Dakotas, where it was intended to originate.
(And I had to go buy my own Cat5 cable to connect to the hotel network, what's up with that???)

We were 3.75 hours into our entitely uneventful flight from Grande Prairie to Lethbridge, having just explained to Edmonton Radio that we were not overdue and that we had already provided an update 45 minutes before with our revised ETA. Doggone headwinds.

Anyway, the engine hiccuped. I looked at Dad; he looked at me. Shortly thereafter, the engine started losing power. Not a significant amount, just a few hundred RPM. I could have sworn that there were unusual vibrations, but it was hard to discern in the constant light chop that we were experiencing at 2000 AGL (lots of scattered clouds above us, we were staying under).

I immediately shoved the throttle and mixture forward, with no noticeable changes.

I pulled the carb heat, and the power immediately plunged. OK, turn the carb heat off.

Time to start evaluating options. There was a small 2900 foot grass strip nearby, but that really didn't seem practical. After all, once I got on the ground, then what? No mechanic nearby, etc. Don't get me wrong, if we had lost all power, or if power had continued to trend down, I would have put 78S down on the strip -- or any other prairie land that I could find, and thank goodness there's lots of it in Alberta.

I reported our conditiont to ATC and asked if they could vector me to another nearby airport. They reported one nearby, but it was uncharted and neither I nor Dad could find it.

We had lost a couple of hundred feet of altitute at this point, although I ascribe that to my paying more attention to engine RPM, oil temp, oil pressure, etc. By the way, neither oil temp nor pressure moved a milimeter from where they have been pegged for the entire trip.

At this point, we were maybe 10 miles from Lethbridge. All of a sudden, the low RPM condition vanished and it was redlining at 2700, 2710 RPM. Hmm, that's weird. The last thing I wanted to do was remove power from the engine, but that's just what I did to keep below the redline.

Lethbridge Radio asked if I had the railway bridge 5 miles out. I did. They reported that they had turned on the approach lights for me. I didn't declare an emergency, but I did ask them to roll the emergency trucks -- just in case.

Well, I kept her high until a mile final, stright in, then chopped the power, pulled the carb heat, bled off some airspeed, and committed to land. Under the circumstances, the landing wasn't all that bad.

The controlled piped up, "78S, nice job, and taxi to park." Well, that's just what I did, and a HUGE wave of stress release passed over me. Dad looked a little stressed also, but he gave me a pat on the shoulder and a "Good job." That meant alot.

Well, a couple of mechanic hours later and I can report this:

1. Compression test is perfect. All cylinders at 75 or above.
2. Plugs contained only typical fouling, nothing abnormal.
3. No apparent contamination in the gascolator or carbureator.
4. No blockage in the exhaust pipe.
5. Magneto check normal.

Basically, they could find nothing.

All of the mechanics and hangar flyers piped in their theories. But the leading contender appears to be carb ice. It was fairly warm up there, about 50 degrees F. There were cumulus clouds all around, and the humidity was something high.

So, with that in mind, I took her up for a trip around the pattern to satisfy the test flight requirement of the FARs.

As I was taxiing out, the controller reported that a plane had crashed near the airport. Talk about curdling your blood. As if it hadn't been soured enough by our own experience, now we have this.

A young man had cleared cutoms with his Vari-Eze. We noticed that he then had significant difficulty in getting her restarted. Took him something like 12 or 13 times, and indeed it was only after he hand propped it that she started.

After taking off, he reported that he had a fire, and he was cleared to land anywhere at the airport. Witnesses say that he was coming in to land when the plane simply plunged into the ground. The consensus was that the fire melted the control surfaces (engine is mounted on the rear in such planes), or that the pilot succumbed to smoke from the fire.

I saw plenty of black smoke as I was taxiing to the runway. I really didn't want to fly at that point, but if we were to go anywhere, a test flight was required. So I took off, and got a birds eye view of the crash site. It wasn't pretty. And I hope that I never see another one.

Here's the picture from the local news. Sorry it's so small, that's all they've got:

Well, make a long story short, we're safe, 78S is in perfect condition, and there's one less pilot in this world. Oh, and Dad's heart skipped when someone ran into the FBO office and said, "Someone crashed" about the time that I was getting ready for the test flight. Thankfully, someone quickly added that it was the guy in the homebuilt. Clearly, not me.

Folks, there's no denying that flying is risky. But so too is driving, boating, and even crossing the street. We accept that truism, and I for one do everything I can to manage the risk. I know my personal minimums, I train hard, and I'm always expecting something to go wrong. But even then, when something does go wrong, it's a cruicible up there, and you better aviate, navigate, and communicate.

So, when you all go to bed tonight, say a prayer for the IFR Pilot and Dad, who were protected by 78S's lucky shamrock keychain. Then, say a separate prayer for unlucky pilot who didn't make it.


Susan said...

Phew!! I am so glad you are safe....Be careful out there....we need you back here.

Susan said...

By the way, this is the second homebuilt accident since you first talked about building one yourself.... I am thinking we are all glad you decided not to take that route.

Anonymous said...


Sam said...

Wow. That's enough stuff happening in one day. Even not knowing the guy, being in such close proximity to a fatal accident is an unpleasant reminder that what we does indeed carry a certain amount on danger. Glad to see that you dealt with your own situation effectively and got in on the ground. Kudos.

Aviatrix said...

If you put the carb heat on and the engine sputters, what else could it mean but that the carb heat is melting ice, and the water is going into the engine and making it sputter?

IFR Pilot said...

Aviatrix, I don't doubt that you're absolutely right. But, it's easier to think rationally about those things from the safety and comfort of my hotel room. Much harder to do so when in the left seat. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Anonymous said...

You might do better to thank God for protecting you than a shamrock... and say a prayer before each flight! Glad you are okay!