I awoke early on a beautiful October Thursday morning. I had been planning to fly from Big Piney, Wyoming, (KBPI) to Meridian, Mississippi, (MEI) to pick up my brother, Darren. I had recently purchased a Bonanza A-36 and Darren was going to take my G-35 V-tail back to Mississippi.
I arrived at the airport about 6 a.m. as I wanted to get an early start on my long cross-country flight. After a thorough preflight of my new airplane I called Flight Service for a weather briefing. I was told everything I wanted to hear by the briefer with one exception, icing conditions between 8,000 feet and 16,000 feet msl along the highest portion of my route. I had planned to fly at 11,500 msl over the mountains at Laramie, Wyoming, and this is exactly where the ice was forecast, so I decided to have a cup of coffee and wait awhile.
Around 7:30 a.m. I called the Flight Service Station again and was told that the freezing level was now at an altitude that wouldn’t affect me. I lifted off BPI about 8 a.m. and climbed to my cruising altitude of 11,500 msl. Almost immediately, the tail winds that were forecast began doing their job and pushed me along nicely at a ground speed of 230 knots. I would easily make up the lost time with these winds.
It was a beautiful, uneventful flight that ended at Key Field in Meridian six and half hours later, where Darren met me. We talked and enjoyed our time together as it had been a long while since we had seen each other. We had a nice dinner and turned in early so we could get an early start back to Wyoming on Friday.
We arrived at Key Field about 6:30 a.m. and began preflighting the airplane. Everything looked great, except the tailwind that I enjoyed the day before would now be a direct headwind. Oh well, just a little more time in the airplane.
Darren is a CFI and we filed IFR from Meridian to Fort Smith, Arkansas, so I could gain some experience flying in the IFR world. I briefed our passenger Jimmy (a friend who had come along so Darren wouldn’t have to fly back alone) on our flight plan, stops, the airplane door, seat belts, flight time, etc. His only request was a slow descent because he had trouble with his ears. I assured him that I would make as slow a descent as possible.
As the ground fell away beneath us, I began setting the airplane up for a climb to our assigned altitude of 6,000 feet msl. It was a new and exciting experience for me, listening and talking to Memphis center as we flew across the Mississippi Delta toward Arkansas.
As we approached the Mississippi River, Darren noticed the oil temperature gauge was creeping toward zero. It was still in the green, just starting to move in the wrong direction. All the other gauges looked good and as he gave the oil temp gauge a little tap it, too, came back to life. We droned on into the wind and were handed off to Little Rock Approach. About the time we checked in with Little Rock, Darren and I noticed at the same time the oil pressure gauge starting to move to the left. We immediately checked the CHT — good; EGT — good; Oil Temp — good; so we gave the pressure gauge the old tap and nothing happened, another tap, still nothing. The oil pressure was still in the green and all other gauges looked good, so we kept going, but as a precaution Darren hit the NRST button on the GPS and dialed Pine Bluff CTAF into the standby frequency.
We kept a very close eye on the oil pressure gauge and it seemed frozen at the bottom of the green. Jimmy, Darren and I were all a bit nervous, and just as Pine Bluff airport came into view, two miles off our right wing, the oil pressure gauge decided to dip into the top of the red. Darren immediately looked at me and said, “let’s land here.” We were at 6,000 feet msl and Pine Bluff airport is at 206 feet msl, so the controller was a little confused when Darren called to say we would cancel IFR and land at Pine Bluff. Some may wonder why we didn’t declare an emergency. Simply put, we analyzed our current situation and given the condition of the airplane (we still had an operating engine with good temps) and the location of a suitable landing spot (KPBF), we didn’t feel it was necessary to declare an emergency although we were ready to had we lost the engine. I put the flaps down, lowered the gear and started a steep right turning descent of about 2,000 fpm (sorry about your ears, Jimmy). Darren was making position and intention calls over the CTAF for a landing on Runway 36. A Baron politely held short of 18 for us. I had made a complete 360 degree turn and was lined up on 36, but I felt too high to land. Darren, who knew the urgency of the situation, said “my airplane” and entered a forward slip and performed a very nice landing.
We taxied off the runway and up to the Pine Bluff Aviation lineman and quickly shutdown. Jimmy, who was very glad to be on the ground, got out of the airplane and walked to the engine cowling. He bent down, then held up his finger and said, “You got an oil leak.” His whole hand was covered in oil. Upon further examination, all we could find was oil. It was everywhere, inside the engine cowling, on the wings, on the belly of the airplane, all over the ramp, oil was everywhere. I started to realize what had just happened and how extremely lucky we were. A crowd of people had gathered by this time and all were very polite and wanted to help any way they could.
A local A&P, Rick Kindrick, was very helpful in locating and repairing the problem. After a thorough cleaning, he found an almost invisible crack in the oil filter adapter and although it appeared all the oil in the engine was now somewhere else, we still had five quarts in the engine. Rick located a new oil filter adapter, had it delivered, installed it and sent us on our way.
A few things I learned from this experience were gauges rarely fail — trust them — don’t be afraid to land and check out a potential problem (you may not have as many options if you keep going), the practical use of a forward slip and generally people are very nice and helpful in a time of need. I was very fortunate to have had a more experienced pilot onboard and an airport so close to where I needed it. Without this combination I might be telling a story with a completely different ending.
To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.