Interesting In-Flight Emergency [long]

The following happened about a month ago, and after some internal debate, I decided the board might find it interesting. Sorry about the length, but I wanted to tell the whole story, for pilots and non-pilots alike.

After Christmas, due to differing schedules and impatience to get started, my teenaged kids decided take our small plane to Grandma’s and let the oldsters follow later in the car. After a few days of visiting, my son needed to return to his job, so he flew home alone leaving everyone else to ride home with me.

On his way, he landed in various towns to see old friends, and didn’t arrive at our home airfield until after dark. This was when he realized his car keys were still at Grandma’s.:rolleyes: His GF had spare keys, but was unfamiliar with the DFW area, so he agreed to meet her at still another airfield, and took off again for a short night flight.

At this point his evening got a lot more interesting.

Midway across the city (S of DFW airport) the windshield began growing blurry and hazy, beneath a thin film of something. As he puzzled over this, he said he began to notice a growing “burning oil smell” (his words). Sure enough, when he glanced down, the gauges were showing a drop in oil pressure. Informing ATC of his plight, he turned around and headed for the nearest airport. By the time he’d reversed course, the windshield was nearly covered, and the hot oil smell was getting stronger. Another check of the gauges showed even more decline in oil pressure, and he decided the engine might not last much longer. He called ATC, declared an emergency, and then began a climb to gain altitude while the engine was still developing power. He later told me he was imagining a scenario where oil was spraying lord-knows-where in his engine compartment; perhaps onto a red hot exhaust manifold. After reaching what he reckoned to be a sufficient altitude and fearing a fire, he shut down the engine. At this point his windshield (and the side windows) had become almost completely opaque.

Now at this point, the poor kid is all by himself; at night; almost blind, and gliding to an airport that he hopes is somewhere ahead of him in the darkness. As he recounted the story to me, he said all he could think was that he was glad he was the only one on board.

Using his nav instruments, and with help from ATC, he reached a point where he figured he was at the right altitude and position for an approach to the runway, restarted the engine, and lowered the landing gear. Remembering his training, he unlatched the side door in case there was a hard landing. This promptly caused all his charts to blow out of the plane, but was more of an embarrassment, than a real problem.

Since the door is on the right side of the plane, he couldn’t see out of the crack where it was open. The only opening he had was the pilot’s “storm window”, a small hatch about elbow level, used for talking to ground crewman. Using opposite aileron and rudder, he put the plane into a sideslip and slouched way down in his seat. Since he was now flying sorta sideways, this gave him a small view of what was in front of him, but the sideslip caused all 3 landing lights to aim away from his flight path. Using the left-side runway lights, he brought the plane as near to the centerline as he could guess, lined it back up with the rudder and let it touch down on the runway. Once he was sure he was on concrete he slammed on the brakes (he joked later that since he’d saved the plane, he figured I could spring for some new tires).:stuck_out_tongue:

After getting it stopped, the tower controllers guided him by voice off the runway and onto a taxiway. Clearing the runway, he shut down the engine and they sent a tug to tow him to the ramp. He said he was calm throughout the ordeal, but started shaking once the engine was off and he knew everything was OK. I assured him this was probably a reaction to adrenaline (at least I think what happens after a fight or flight response). Seeing the plane in the lights at the terminal, it was covered in oil, all over the windshield, cowling, belly, nosegear and even some of the inboard section of the wings. Obviously, something important let go in the engine compartment.

The aftermath:

First, hats off to pullinSon, for a masterful job of flying, and for his quick thinking in getting on the ground post-haste. Thankfully, no one was injured although I think we had a few sleepless nights, thinking about what might-have-been.

The mechanics had to spend quite a bit of time washing down the plane before they could search for the source of the leak. They drained the remaining oil, and discovered there was still enough left in the sump that the engine was unhurt, and according to the A/P, it probably would have run for another 20-30 minutes, before seizing up. They quickly found the leak in the prop governor, which is on the rear of this particular engine model. It apparently had a broken seal, which will pump out a nice spray of oil when under pressure. Due to the rearward location of the leak, no oil ever got near the exhaust, so there was little to no danger of fire (although my son couldn’t know this at the time).

Anyway, everything is now repaired (and carefully inspected). And although pullinSon showed a marked fondness for ground transportation for a few weeks, he’s back in the air again. And I’m getting those calls at work again (“Dad, are you using the plane Friday?”) All’s well that ends well.

For non-pilots, I found a google pic of a storm window. This one’s on the right side of the plane (ours is on the left), but it gives you an idea of the size.

A/P – Airframe and Powerplant mechanic
ATC – Air Traffic Control
Prop Governor – device that uses oil pressure to adjust the angle of the propellor blades.

Very interesting and exciting story for me who is certainly a non-pilot.
I’m glad your son pulled through and there was a happy ending for all!

That story brought to mind an exchange between John Wayne and John Carroll in Flying Tigers where Wayne relates a ‘harrowing story’. Carroll asks, ‘Did you die?’ Wayne replies, ‘Uh-huh…’

Congrats to your son for successfully handling an in-flight emergency.

Was it by chance one of the four-seat Pipers he was flying?

Your son did a magnificent job. Congratulations to him, and to you for teaching him well.

Agreed. What a good dad you must be.

My dad would not teach me to fly. He would teach me informally, and sign my log book too; but officially, I had to hire another instructor. That instructor would sign me off for my solo, and sign me off to take my check ride.

My dad was a Flight Service Specialist stationed in Daggett, CA (DAG). A friend of his was a flight instructor, and this friend had a daughter. The friend taught his daughter how to fly. IIRC dad was not on duty that day, and was standing by the low fence next to the proud father who was watching his daughter’s first solo. A Stearman (I think he said – though it might have been a cabin plane of some sort – I’ll just say it was a Stearman) had flown down from Alaska, and it was not equipped with a radio. The daughter was on short final, when the Stearman started coming down on top of her. The Stearman pilot could not see the Cessna 150 as he descended. When it was quite clear he wasn’t going to turn away, and with the Cessna close to the ground, the girl decided to bug out. She attempted a climbing turn and stalled the aircraft. I ended up upside-down on the runway. She’d bought the farm.

My dad saw her father’s face as he watched the crash, helpless to do anything. Dad said the father blamed himself. What did he forget? Why didn’t he imagine such a scenario when he was training his daughter? The father suffered a double tragedy; witnessing the death of his daughter, and having to live with the guilt that if he’d only taught her ‘one more thing’ she’d be alive.

After seeing that, dad decided that when I came of age I would have to get someone else as my official flight instructor.

Thanks everyone for your kind words.

Broomstick: It was a Piper Arrow. (Not ours, google image)

Johnny LA: That was a chilling story. I did teach my son to fly, as I posted about it here. I had all the expected fears about it, and more than a few sleepless nights, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I figured it would work out OK (and cheaper). So far so good, but there’ve been a few worried afternoons when the weather was building and he was still out on a solo cross-country.

In my previous post: ‘It ended up upside-down.’ I didn’t.

Was rereading my post, Johnny. If it came off sounding a little snarky, I’m sorry (…been doing this 25 years… yada yada). It’s a result of trying to sneak in quick posts while I’m cleaning the kitchen. :stuck_out_tongue:

I detected no snark.

That was a fine performance by your son. Not often does such a problem end as well.

When an emergency is declared at a small airport, do they send fire ambulance?

Most excellent job of handling an emergency. for those who aren’t pilots the exhaust manifolds glow red under normal flight conditions so even a small amount of oil on them is an instant fire.

I’ve been in a twin engine glider at night at 1500 ft AGL. It’s amazing how quiet an airplane is with noise canceling headsets and no engines. You can hear your sweat glands.

There is nobody there to send it. If a nearby airport is called then it would probably be treated like a 911 call.

Interesting about opening the door. It’s one of those things that there is endless debate over with some people saying opening the door decreases the structural integrity of the aircraft, and others saying leaving it closed increases the chances of you being trapped inside.

Good to hear it went well. That was good thinking to shut it down and save some oil for the final approach.

In this case, there were firefighters/ambulance at the airport. They were called out, and were waiting alongside the runway. I haven’t talked to the tower, but I believe they were dispatched by the controllers as a matter of course when they heard “oil leak” and “worried about fire”.

I haven’t heard the first one before. Doors aren’t generally structural on nonpressurized airplanes anyway, and the pressurized ones don’t need to be pressurized when they’re about to crash. The frame warping and jamming the door shut is almost a given, though.

There’s a different discussion regarding lightplanes with gullwing doors, like the Socata TB line. On them, the folk wisdom is that if you unlatch the door, the slipsteam will catch it (they’re huge) and it will damage and possibly jam the stabilator or rudder. I don’t buy it, since they’re so light, but there’s never been a crash where the theory has been tested. I’d go ahead and open it anyway, hoping for it to tear off, since the doors aren’t openable at all if the plane is on its back. The only way out otherwise is to kick out one of the rear windows (the placard decals on them are fun for non-pilot passengers to read), with the legs you just broke in the crash, and try to crawl out.

thirdname, smaller airports very often have a fire station right at the field, normally to serve the local community but with back doors allowing the equipment to roll right out if something happens to an airplane. The land around local airports tends to be used for a lot of things not related to aviation, just to keep residences (and complainers) away. Water treatment plants are another popular use for the adjacent land, at least around here.

pullin, your son now knows he can stay calm and think the problem through if he’s in trouble. That knowledge is going to be a very valuable asset to him in the future.

So what are you supposed to do in the situation from your story? What’s the one more thing?

That’s what haunted her father.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know precisely who was where; but I’ll throw out some WAGs. The Cessna had a radio, and the girl knew the ‘Stearman’ was there. She should have aborted her landing sooner. How to avoid and recover from departure stalls are part of the training. The father might have believed he should have foreseen this practically unheard of scenario, and drilled her on it. DAG is in the middle of the desert, and there are very few obstructions. (Those that are, are man-made.) She could have turned away from the runway without attempting to climb, and then climbed when she was clear. The ‘one more thing’ might have been to teach her to consider other options.

Incidentally, my first long cross-country was to Henderson, NV (south of Las Vegas). A long cross-country flight is one made after the student has soloed and the instructor is confident that he can make such a flight, but before the student is ready to go up win an examiner for a check ride to get his license. So he’s flying on a student license or ‘learner’s permit’. I was downwind at pattern altitude when I happened to look behind me. A retractible had entered downwind mid-field. Since I had just passed mid-field, he was close for my comfort. His gear was up, and he was closing fast. Since I had several hundred feet, I got on the unicom and announced I was turning for clearance and made a descending turn out of the pattern. I climbed back, circled around, and landed. Was the retractible too close? Was he really closing on me? Did he see me? As a student pilot, my perception may have been inaccurate; but at the time I thought he was too close and too fast, so I bugged out. Better safe than crashed.