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Dear Flying Readers,
I thought that you might be interested in hearing about how we survived an engine failure, at 16,000 feet, IFR, over the Sierras, and at night! I NEED SOME ADVICE!
It was early Sunday evening, November 25th. My girlfriend Denise and I were returning to CCR (Concord, California - - - in the San Francisco Bay Area) from a fun weekend in Las Vegas with two of our neighbors. I have owned my turbocharged 1987 Trinidad TB-21since 1993, and have over 1,000 hours behind the yoke. I am IFR rated, and I fly my plane several times a week. I have flown it Coast to Coast, and all around Alaska in many types of weather. I keep my annuals up-to-date. The last one was performed by my local FBO at Concord, just 20 hours previously. I have always performed all recommended maintenance, and I never let the fuel tanks get less that ¼ full.
I have been good to my aircraft, and the 250 hp Lycoming 540 engine has never failed me. I have flown this particular route from Las Vegas to Concord at least 25 times. It's a reasonably close, easy, and fun destination.
The four of us were cruising along on autopilot at 16,000 feet, because there were 12,000 feet mountain peaks ahead of us, so I wanted to clear them with plenty of altitude to spare. We had just passed LIDAT intersection, and were cleared direct to Manteca (ECA) VOR. We had plenty of fuel, and we are all wearing our Oxygen Cannulas. Even though we were on an IFR flight plan, the ceiling was above us at 20,000 feet, and it was clear directly below us. A look ahead showed worsening conditions and some mountain obscuration, so I was glad that we were IFR. The plane was performing well as we cruised along at 170 knots TAS. We expected to encounter some significant rain before we arrived home, but that was not a big concern because of my IFR training.
The flight from Las Vegas to Concord usually takes me 2.5 hours. I like to leave Las Vegas early in the afternoon in order to get past the mountains before it gets dark. But, on this day, we got a late start, and encountered unexpected headwinds. Our groundspeed was only 115 knots, according to my Northstar GPS. Because of this, we were almost 3 hours into the flight and we were still almost an hour from home. As I watched the sun set in the west, directly ahead of us, we still had one more mountain range to clear. The flight was uneventful, as the four of us were engaged in casual conversation. All seemed well as the engine hummed along as it always had before.
Then, without warning, it all changed. Suddenly, it felt like I pulled the throttle back to "idle". I checked the throttle control lever, and moved it back and forth, with no response from the engine. I tried the same with the mixture and prop controls, with no improvement. Even though I had plenty of fuel in both tanks, I switched tanks and turned on the electric fuel pump. The magneto switch was in the "both" position. I noted that the manifold pressure had dropped from 25 inches to the bottom of the scale. All other gauges, (including the oil pressure gauge) were in the green. My emergency training helped out because all of this was done in about 5 seconds. As I watched the airspeed bleed off from 170 to 150 (and decreasing), there was no mistaking we wouldn't clear the mountains ahead. We were going down into the darkness below.
Denise, sitting in the co-pilot's seat, knew that something was wrong right away. She says that she heard a rattle, and a look at the expression on my face told her that something was seriously amiss. I pushed the "nearest airport" buttons on the GPS, hoping that there be at least some little airstrip out here in the middle of nowhere. Unless it showed me a place to land, we may end up splattered on the side of the mountains. Fortunately, Mammoth Lakes airport came up #1 on the list, only 9.7 miles away. Its altitude is 7,000 feet (9,000 feet below us), so it was easily within gliding distance. The GPS database told me that it has a long (and lighted) runway. A call to Unicom told us that there were calm winds below.
I called Oakland Center to tell them that we had a loss of manifold pressure, we were canceling IFR, and will proceed to the nearest airport. I told the two passengers in the back seat that "the engine doesn't sound right, so we're going to stop at that airport over there for a precautionary landing". I figured that panicked passengers wouldn't help matters any. As we approached the airport, I made sure to keep my base leg in tight in order to avoid undershooting the runway.
The landing was smooth, and I exited the runway onto a taxiway with snow and ice on it. The outside air temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The engine was still running, so I slowly taxied to the ramp. I got out of the plane, slipped on the ice, and fell down. As I was laying there, I saw a steady stream of oil flowing out from under the cowling. The airport was closing for the night, but they allowed me to put the plane in one of their hangars for $25 a night. There are no aviation mechanics at Mammoth Lakes airport, and the nearest one is at Bishop, about an hour's drive away. We decided to leave the plane there at Mammoth Lakes and try to find a way home.
In good weather, it is about 7 to 8 hours to drive from Mammoth to Concord. To make a long story short, we took a $260 taxi ride (3.5 hours) from Mammoth to Reno, spent the night there, and drove home to Concord the next day. Along the way, we counted our blessings that we had a good ending to a potentially tragic story.
So what went wrong? We still don't know, because it has been 6 days and we haven't been able to get anyone to look at the plane yet. All signs point to the turbocharger. The engine never quit entirely, because we could still taxi when on the ground at 7,000 feet. A turbocharger failure at 16,000 feet would definitely cause a significant loss of performance. We still don't know if the oil was draining from the turbocharger, its hoses, or the engine. One witness at the airport says that he thinks he saw fire coming from under the cowling as we were taxiing. At this point, we don't know if the problem should be the responsibility of the Concord FBO due to faulty maintenance, or whether mechanical failure is just an unforeseen risk of flying.
My insurance carrier (USAIG) says that mechanical engine failures are not covered by my policy. If we had crashed the airplane by landing short of the runway, or if we had been injured, then that would have been covered. But, since there was no other damage to the aircraft, and no bodily harm to us, then we are just "plane" out of luck.
The FBO at Concord seemed interested in this story, but offered no solutions at to how I may get my plane repaired. If I have to import my own mechanic to Mammoth Lakes and pay his living expenses while he works on the engine, I may have to mortgage my house!
I would like some answers, but I don't know where to turn. I certainly want to get my plane fixed, and I don't ever want to repeat this harrowing episode. I am copying this letter to the following companies and agencies, in the hope that at least one of them will show an interest in my plight.
Oakland Airport Hangar 5
8517 Earhart Road, Suite 100
Oakland, CA 94621
TB-21 Aircraft #745
PACIFIC STATES AVIATION
51 John Glenn Drive
I think that fellow Trinidad owners also share a vital interest in this mechanical failure. I think that an answer of "Gee, that's too bad" is not good enough. I did everything right, and have always paid top dollar for quality maintenance. I very well could be dead right now, through no fault of my own. If we were in actual IMC, or if this had happened 10 minutes sooner or later, we would be an NTSB statistic. They would probably write "pilot error" on my tombstone.
In any case, this all makes for a good story that I hope can benefit others. It hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for flying one bit, and I'm anxious to get back in the air. I think that I definitely want to know exactly what happened (and why), and unless I can get a really good answer, I'll avoid mountain flying at night.
Wish me luck!
Christopher A. Wolter
78 Meadow Walk Place
Walnut Creek, California 94598
Trinidad #745 (N54TW)
I live in Bishop and regularly fly out of both Bishop and Mammoth. You might try contacting Rod Philbrick (Hanger One Aero Service) in Bishop, and ask him if he has any ideas. His phone is (760) 873-7500. Hope you can get someone to fix your airplane quickly.
I hope you spend some time thinking about the risks involved in flying over the Sierra at night. If you had developed the problem a few miles later, you would have been S.O.L.
Christopher, have been watching this topic for an update. How did you fare with your problem. Did anyone come to your assistance?
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