I Learned about Flying from That: Monterey Emergency

I discovered aviation years ago after winning a free hour in a United Airlines DC-10 simulator. It wasn’t long before I started taking flying lessons at Centennial Airport in Colorado, where I trained in the high-density- altitude days of summer. If nothing else, the anemic aircraft performance taught me discipline as it related to airspeed: If you are unsatisfied with your rate of climb at Vy, increasing pitch won’t help.

After an intermittent few years of flight training, my family finally prodded me into an administrative position at a flight office in Los Angeles. I packed my bags and drove to the coast, planning to quickly earn my commercial certificate once settled. Instead, I filled a surprisingly affordable room a block from Hermosa Beach with surfboards and sand, and six months later I had yet to fly over Southern California.

Eventually, I was introduced to an airline captain who also owned a flight school. He gave me the number for a 19-year-old CFI, and we got to work finishing up my commercial license. Soon, all that was left was to build the prerequisite hours for the practical test. A flight up the coast sounded like a great way to waste a Saturday, and the clam chowder in Monterey is renowned. It was going to be a long flight in the slowpoke Cessna 152, but I was excited to see the sights and build some time.

I departed early from Daugherty Field in Long Beach. During the run-up, the left magneto threatened to drop below the rpm limit; I ran the test several times before I was satisfied that it was stabilized on the borderline of allowable. I thought, this is not normal, but it is legal. It is a concept that I now know should raise red flags.

I took off from LGB and made my way across the tangled LAX morass, breaking out of Class B airspace just past Malibu. It was a beautiful day, smooth as glass. I had the Pacific to my left and the Santa Monica Mountains to my right. The aircraft was trimmed and humming; I was maintaining altitude with gentle inputs from my thumb and forefinger. The Pacific coast was slowly guiding me toward Pebble Beach, a few miles from Monterey Airport. An ideal flight if ever there was one.

Then it happened. All at once, the aircraft began decelerating. The engine was still cranking, but there was a precipitous loss of power. My heart hit my throat as I glanced at the airspeed indicator: There is not much room between cruise and best glide speeds in the 152. I informed ATC that I was not going to be able to maintain my assigned 6,000-foot altitude and requested vectors to the nearest airport.

The controller gave me a heading to Camarillo, which pointed me directly at a 3,100-foot ridge; I quickly surmised that my glidepath would not clear the hill. Still, the engine had not yet failed altogether, and I hoped that I could milk enough power to crest the terrain.

The controller asked if I needed assistance. I immediately declared an emergency. The frequency went silent as I accomplished the emergency procedures (and as the controller likely got on the line to Point Mugu Naval Air Station — which was a few miles closer than Camarillo — to let them know they might soon be hosting an uninvited guest).

The first thing I did — with the weak left magneto fresh in mind — was cycle the ignition to the right side. No luck. I confirmed that the fuel selector was fully open and the primer locked. I set the mixture to rich. As an afterthought, I turned the carb heat on. A few moments passed, and the engine returned to normal.

A response to an input does not always mean that the input caused the response. Particularly when several actions are performed in rapid succession, it can be difficult to determine which action (if any) actually produced the outcome. Since the last thing I did before the engine returning to normal was apply carburetor heat, it seemed like the two were related. I was (at the time) flummoxed: Carburetor ice gradually reduces power before the onset of roughness; I had been flying in a perfectly trimmed condition right up to the moment when the engine suddenly decelerated. The symptom didn’t fit the disease.

I wasn’t complaining as I powered into Camarillo. I taxied off the runway, found a parking spot and breathed. As I exited the little plane, I saw the cutest airport restaurant I’ve ever laid eyes on. I grabbed a burger, called the flight-school owner, and we had it out.

I described the scenario, and he hollered at me for departing Long Beach if I had any concerns about the magneto. I had been flying long enough to know that he would have been hollering at me if I had refused an aircraft operating within limit. He was clearly more upset with the inconvenience of having the aircraft stuck at Camarillo than he was regarding my close call. He told me to run it up and fly it back. He told me it was carburetor ice. I let him know how confident I was in an armchair diagnosis.

The mag performed the same as it had in Long Beach (right at the limit). I decided it wasn’t good enough. I called the owner and told him he could do what he wanted with the Cessna; I was going to catch the shuttle to LAX. He was unhappy, and I decided on the spot that I would not be flying his Cessna 152s anymore.

For all of that, I still had a commercial license to get. I eventually found a flying club and got the hours I needed. The practical test requires a retractable gear, however, and the flight club did not have one. Though I had sworn off the airline captain's flight school, it had a Piper Arrow for less than a hundred bucks an hour. I eventually relented and called the 19-year-old flight instructor to see about scheduling some time in it.
The instructor told me he wasn't working for the flight school any longer and the flight school was no longer owned by the airline captain. He explained why, and several months later I read a National Transportation Safety Board report that sent chills up my spine.

It was a typical Southern California day — 71 degrees, clear skies, with a 10-knot sea breeze. The only thing remarkable about the day was the date: September 11, 2005, the fourth anniversary of the terror attacks. It would be the last day that this particular C152 would fly.

Thirty seconds after departure, the CFI who was flying the Cessna reported poor climb performance and requested a return to the field. Witnesses on the ground noted that the aircraft had a high pitch attitude, with the wings and tail waggling. In the attempt to turn back to LGB, the unstable flight profile became a stall, and the stall a spin.

The C152 crashed vertically into a parking lot. The flight was a training flight with a CFI and a student pilot. The CFI was 25 years old (the student pilot was not certificated, so the NTSB had no particulars regarding that occupant).

A 100-hour inspection four weeks earlier had logged the engine at 2,762 hours; the recommended time before overhaul was 2,500. Lycoming representatives noted that only one cylinder had spark plugs in serviceable condition; all the other spark plugs were worn beyond limits. The NTSB report mentions that the aircraft was found with the magneto selector in the “right” setting (“both” is the normal position). I had a sense of déjà vu.

No one can say for sure what transpired on that fatal flight, but given the fact that it occurred a short month after my flight — and given the fact that maintenance was obviously not a priority on the aircraft — it seems likely that little was done to the Cessna following my diversion into Camarillo. The aircraft had bad spark plugs when it crashed; I am quite convinced that it had bad spark plugs when I flew it.

I was lucky. My event occurred at 6,000 feet, with time and altitude to spare. It did not occur over congested terrain with mere seconds cornering the abilities of a young man. Some conditions in flight result in an undesirable outcome no matter the skill level of the pilot. Some are such a surprise that there is little hope of a proper response. Briefing the worst-case scenario before every flight can help (in a single-engine aircraft this would involve a power loss below an altitude where a safe return to the field can be made). Still, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The pressure to complete a flight can lead to bad decisions. When we want something, we have the tendency to underestimate risks and overestimate rewards. The stronger the desire, the more blind we become to the consequences. It can happen to you. Never forget that.

Stan DunnWriter

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