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Fly the Machine

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, January, 2007
CFIDarren Newsletter, July 12, 2011
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Ever hear of  Aviate - Navigate - Communicate?

Sure you have.  Its almost so cliché, pilots forget it more than they remember it.

On a beautiful, December day I had the pleasure of flying with a Mooney owner who was getting his Mooney out of the shop after 8 months of customizations.  Those 8 months were spent trying to coerce another 2-3 knots out of this Mooney.  I have flown with an aweful lot of Mooney owners.  Its always amazed me the lengths that these owners will go through for small gains.

It occurred to me that I really put a lot of faith in mechanics and owners to keep their machines in pristine condition.   I was feeling a little apprehensive as the mechanic was mentioning to me that it might pull to the right a bit.  The rudder tab will need a small adjustment.  I asked, "You've flown this since you put the new cowling on, right?"  "Oh sure, a few times actually."  I guess I felt a little better.

After a very thorough preflight, we got in and took off.  The owner was nervous because he hadn't flown in about 8 months.  After a few essentials were completed, we were airborne.  The uneventful flight was a mini-proving flight to see how it flew and to reposition it to a more convenient airport.  Everything was perfect.  The flying was smooth, the cowling stayed on, the owner got an astounding 163MPH, and the weather was beautiful VFR.  The only thing that didn't seem right was my gut feeling and cylinder #4 ran a little hot. 

The next day, the owner called the mechanic about cylilder #4 and was told, thats normal for Mooneys with the altered cowling.  I had that little nagging feeling again.  The owner had planned today's flight to give the Mooney a workout.  "We're going to Key West." he announced.  Normally I would have been happy to spend 30 minutes over the open ocean but today was different.  I suggested we go to a little airport 80 miles north for lunch.  Key West was scrapped and we were off to Ocala.

The flight north was uneventful except for the smallest thing.  The engine gave us a mini-burble half way through the flight.  It was so minor my Bose headset did its job and beautifully filtered out the offending noise.  Cylinder #4 was doing its typical thing and was running hot.

After a little lunch and some discussion about radio procedure, we headed out to the aircraft.  After a normal run-up we were holding short and ready for departure.  The owner taxied out on the runway and we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of holding out there while the aircraft ahead cleared the runway.  Another reminder to wait until the aircraft ahead clears because there is nothing more dangerous or scary than sitting on runway numbers at a non-towered airport. 

The takeoff roll was ok except for the lack of crosswind control that is so prevalent in today's pilots.  Upon breaking ground, the engine burbled again.  It was more of a burble that made you consider landing on the remaining runway.  It immediately resolved itself so we elected to continue the takeoff.   Another reminder to use all available runway for every takeoff.

Everything seemed to settle down until 18 minutes later.  Seven miles north of Inverness, Florida, the engine started running real rough as cyclinder #4 temperature gauge indicated really hot.  The behaviour of the airplane seemed very familiar to me.  It felt like Anatomy of an Engine Failure.  We started looking for the little airport.

Time moved very slowly as we were losing altitude.  The engine was running real rough and it wasn't putting out the power we needed to stay aloft.  It was the kind of rough running engine that immediately conveys a "pit of terror" message to one's stomach.  The customer said, "Cylinder #4 temperature is going through the roof."   I said, "Fly directly to the airport. Fly the machine."  I did his radio call into the airport and down we went.  I advised him to stay as high as possible and "don't fly any crazy extended final."  When he cut the power to land, the drama ended and it was a normal, power off landing.  We taxied up to a grass area, tied down, and called a rental car company to get us home.

After a little diagnostic work, the mechanic decided that fuel injector #4 was clogged.  Amazing to me that a little squirt of fuel could be so important.  Debriefing on the way home,
the pilot later confessed he didn't know what I meant: "Fly the machine."  I explained that far more important than indications on digital guages was flying the airplane.  Keeping airspeed and altitude in check during an emergency goes a long way to keeping skin intact. 

A few after thoughts...

Ever wonder how many engine failures never show up on the evening news?  Its now my 2nd and since the flight terminated on a runway, no one ever found out about either of them.  These are stats that are lost forever while the stats in the accident database only reflect those which led to serious damage or injury.  I wonder how common this really is.

Another thing.  This time I wasn't nearly as caught off guard.  Does it mean you get better at handling every engine failure?  I doubt it.  During the emergency, a few things kept running through my mind that are probably useful for all pilots to consider:
  • did we get the right results from the troubleshooting steps?
  • do we really understand the error that caused the emergency?
  • did we respond correctly?
In retrospect, I guess we did everything right.  And to top it off, I was on time for an FAA Safety Meeting where I was the featured speaker on Radio Phraseology.  What a great opening story I had...

"Any landing you can walk away from is a good one!"
-- Gerald Massie, Army Photographer and Survivor of 1944 crash of B-17

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