Of Mice and Airplanes

Tom's bird has a run-in with a mouse, and it could have gotten nasty.

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When the poet Robert Burns wrote, "the best laid schemes o' mice and men, gang aft a-gley," what he meant was that things often don't work out the way we intend.

The well laid plan was for Robert Goyer to fly up to Columbia County to take some pictures of me with my Cardinal. That was the plan.

At 7:30 on the appointed morning, he called to say that it looked like the weather was going to be better at Westchester County for taking the pictures and it might make more sense if I flew the Cardinal down there for the photo session. That was the new plan.

I had left the airplane preheat plugged in for the previous week so the airplane was toasty and ready to go when I got to the airport. In the past, I've waited until the night before a flight to hook up the Reiff system, but I was finding it convenient not to have to make a run to the cold hangar the night before each flight. And since the preheat system includes cylinder bands as well as an oil pan heater, I was pretty comfortable that I wasn't creating condensation that could be unhealthy for the engine.

The very slight wind was favoring a departure to the south, and everything worked just the way it's supposed to as I lined up and advanced the throttle. I prided myself that, for once, I was consciously keeping the airplane on the centerline. The wheels came off the ground; I retracted the gear, eased off the takeoff flaps and continued climbing to my now-I-can-turn-back altitude before reducing the power and adjusting the prop.

It was right about then that I became aware of a strong smell of something burning. I immediately began a turn back to the downwind leg. But then-and this is hard for me to understand-I thought, "Gee, there's no smoke. None of the circuit breakers have popped. The engine is continuing to run smoothly and the instruments are all indicating the proper values. Maybe I should just go ahead to Westchester County."

For a moment I actually stopped the turn and started to roll back toward the course for Westchester County. But then I realized that maybe I wasn't seeing any smoke because it was being blown back underneath the airplane; maybe there was a fire burning furiously beneath my feet. I rolled quickly back to the downwind, remembered to put the gear down and flew a tight pattern to get the airplane on the ground. I taxied to a remote area on the ramp and jumped out, fire extinguisher in hand. Nothing. There was no smoke. I opened the cowl access door and stuck my more-than-efficient nose down and sniffed. Nothing. I went back into the cockpit-there the smell was still very obvious-and looked under the panel, feeling for any warm or hot wires. Nothing.

Brian Gaylord, who takes good care of my Cardinal, was climbing out of a Gulfstream business jet in the hangar when I tracked him down. I told him of my adventure. He asked a couple of pointed diagnostic questions and agreed to pull the airplane into the hangar to see what he could find. He walked me back to the hangar door to look out to the ramp. "I just wanna be sure it hasn't gone up in flames out there," he said. It hadn't.

Thinking about it later, I can't believe I hesitated. Dumb? Stupid! But the fact that I even considered continuing the flight is troubling. Although we had cancelled several earlier photo sessions because of weather, there really wasn't a whole lot of pressure to make the trip-or shouldn't have been. I wasn't transporting a time-sensitive organ. I wasn't carrying a patient for treatment. There was no imminent deadline. The only real pressure was my not wanting to change my plans and disappoint Robert. But that shouldn't have weighed heavy. I had Robert's cell phone number so I knew I'd be able to reach him even if he had already left for the airport.

I have to wonder whether, if I hadn't known I'd be able to reach Robert, I would have been even more inclined to be stupid. Would I have circled around the airport for a while to see if the smell would go away? And if it had, would I have then gone ahead and completed the flight to Westchester?

The other response that I question was my need to fly a full pattern. There was no traffic and virtually no wind. Wouldn't it have been a lot smarter to announce on unicom what I was going to do and land back on the departure runway rather than to take the time to fly the full pattern? I remember an accident at the Teterboro (New Jersey) Airport in which a pilot declared an emergency during takeoff when he spotted a small fire on a wing. Although the tower offered to let him turn back to land downwind, he elected to fly the full pattern as he monitored the fire. Tragically, he never realized he was only seeing a small part of the blaze, and the fire burned completely through the wing as he flew an extended downwind leg.

In another I-don't-think-I'd-ever-do-that scenario, the pilot of a twin, with one engine shut down, attempted to take off from a gravel runway. He wasn't successful. It's one thing for a VFR pilot to inadvertently encounter instrument conditions, but it takes a candidate for the Darwin Award to launch into very obviously serious instrument conditions without the rating. We look at decisions like those and say, "I'd never do something that risky!" But pilots, at least some of us, continue to make the wrong choices.

John King of the King Schools often points out that pilots, as a group, are really very capable people. Why then, he wonders, are there so many accidents that result from someone doing something stupid? I'm paraphrasing here; I don't think John would call anyone stupid-dumb, yes, stupid, no. We all have to be better about assessing the risks and choosing the most conservative option.

I got an e-mail from reader Herbert Rosenthal wanting to know how I had assessed the risk after I landed with an indication of fluctuating oil pressure and still decided to fly the next leg of a trip home. Part of my assessment of the risk is probably indicated by the destination of that flight-home, both for me and the airplane. Herbert's question made me revisit the mental exercise I had performed in making my decision that day. First the fluctuation was relative minor-obvious, but not very great. After landing-on a Sunday-I asked for a mechanic but was told none was available. He could be paged. Did I want that? Yep. At that point, I was still ready to stay for the night if necessary.

The mechanic called within minutes, and I explained that there was a fluctuation of the oil pressure gauge but everything else seemed normal. The JPI engine analyzer hadn't registered any changes from the normal readings that I record on every flight. He suggested that if the oil level were low there would be a fluctuation on the gauge. I went back out to the airplane and checked the oil, and it was down several quarts. There was no sign of an oil leak and, considering the length of the last leg and what the level had been before that flight, consumption seemed reasonable-and an explanation for the jiggling oil pressure gauge.

The weather was good VFR, so I topped off the oil and flew home, keeping a weather eye on the pressure gauge, the JPI analyzer, potential landing sites and the nearest airport function on the GPS. When I got home I again checked the oil level and found it was down almost three quarts. The mechanics at home could find no leak, but they did find some metal in the oil, and a compression check indicated that one of the cylinders wasn't contributing. The metal in the oil was a serious concern, but it turned out a ring had broken and scratched the cylinder.

Robert and I rescheduled our photo session and Brian called me from the airport later in the day. "How am I?" I asked. "I don't know about you, but your airplane's fine."

Seems a mouse had decided to build a house on top of the engine. Clever mouse, he chose an area far enough away from the access door that I couldn't see anything during the preflight and far enough back so nothing was visible from the air intakes at the front of the cowl.

I'd never had problems with mice before, but I was suddenly reminded that when I flew down to New Orleans with Dick Collins for the NBAA convention, he had mouse deterrent devices generously spread around his hangar. In the past I haven't left the preheat system plugged in, using it only the night before a flight, but the week before my rodent encounter the airplane had been in the hangar, blanketed and bundled up with the preheat making the engine nice and toasty.

Hangar mice like toasty, but as Burns says, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. I didn't get to Westchester that day, and now the stowaway mouse has no house.