It was cold at altitude: minus 39 degrees C. It was cold when we landed too: 9 degrees F. As I shut the Cheyenne down, I cautioned my wife, Cathy, to stay in the airplane until I could get the car and come get her and the dog, Corbett. She needed no persuading.
Just then a wisp of white smoke caught my peripheral vision. It seemed to come from the right side of the nose of the airplane. I got out, closing the airstair door behind me to keep whatever heat we had in the cabin. Sure enough, a small amount of white acrid-smelling smoke was coming out of what looked like a breather tube just forward of the heater exhaust. The heater exhaust is easy to spot on all Cheyennes because a trail of exhaust stains the fuselage behind it, in a pattern like the tail of a comet.
I knew the heater had been working properly in the air. Though bleed air from the PT-6 turbine engines is used to pressurize the cabin, the engines aren’t big enough to support the heating function at altitude. This explains the Janitrol heater, with which I have a complicated and not necessarily happy history. It is a temperamental SOB in my experience.
The smoke from the airplane quickly cleared only to be replaced by smoke coming from Cathy, who had an understandable skepticism about staying buttoned up in an aircraft on the ground with smoke billowing from it. So, we all got out, shivering. Not a good start to a Christmas vacation in New Hampshire.
Perplexed, I knew that departing from Lebanon, New Hampshire, in the dead of winter without a functioning heater was a no-go MEL (minimum equipment list) item. I called Jason Archambeault at Signal Aviation. He had sorted through a complex prop issue last summer, and I knew him to be very nice and a good communicator. I also knew him to be an actor in his spare time, which may explain his communication skills.
What I needed more than communication, though, was cabin heat. Jason agreed to test the heater by applying a power cart on the ground and running the heater. Sure enough, he reported: no heat. And this: In my quizzical interest in the smoke, and thus distracted, I had shut the engines down without turning off the windshield and pitot heats. Sure enough, the power cart experiment had melted the pitot covers right off the airplane. So far, not so good. We agreed to get the airplane in the hangar after the weekend and take a closer look in a warmer environment.
I called Jim Celantano in Groton, Connecticut. Jim works at Columbia Air Services there and is a Cheyenne guru. In the past, when nobody could get reliable heat out of our airplane, Jim solved the issue. The only problem was that Jim was short-handed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and loaded up with clients already in the shop. They were screaming for their airplanes.
“Call me next Wednesday and I’ll see if I can work you in,” he said.