I Learned About Flying From That: Rock ‘N’ Ride

A flying date with a rockstar goes awry.

Relationships are often defined by shared experiences. So was the case with Loretta and me. When the tower asked if we wanted to declare an emergency, my date’s panicked expression suggested that our future together might require more than a safe landing.

The Cessna 182 ferry mission was to be routine. N15AP had just been returned to service following an annual and needed to be repositioned from Burlington, Vermont, to Warren-­Sugarbush Airport. Like many newer pilots seeking flight time, I had made my interest in ferrying airplanes known to the local maintenance shops. The pay was terrible, but ferrying did give me the opportunity to fly a lot of different models. And, to the point, my logbook totals were rapidly increasing.

Burlington weather was VFR with a high, thin overcast. Although it was windy, 200 degrees at 20 knots gusting to 30, the winds were optimally aligned for both Burlington’s Runway 19 and Sugarbush’s Runway 22. Knowing that it might be a little bumpy, I was relieved that low visibilities and ceilings so characteristic of many prior ferries would not be a factor. Conducting the mission in daylight was also a big plus.

I had been dating Loretta for a couple of months. She wasn’t particularly happy about flying, but she didn’t fear it, either. (She was a rock singer and frequently toured the country by air. With her striking good looks and deep sexy voice, Loretta performed pieces written by Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks among others along with her own original material to adoring crowds.) No, Loretta’s view was that flying’s biggest risk was bad service. Still, it took some creative cajoling to persuade her to join me for the short Skylane flight to Sugarbush. I ultimately had to promise dinner at Chez Henri, a fancy French restaurant nestled next to the ski area there. Loretta craved their specialty, “Chocolate … Chocolate … Chocolate Cake.”

My experience with ferry flying taught me to invest adequate time performing the preflight. In addition to the standard checks, like oil quantity, fuel integrity, control surface security, I usually ask to have engine cowls opened or removed to inspect connections and leaks, especially in areas where components have been repaired or replaced. And this is not always easy. Having just reassembled the airplane, some shops would cringe at the request because, unlike older designs, modern airplanes tend to discourage easy viewing of critical components like the engine. The C-182P engine, for example, is cowled up in a way that makes tools mandatory in order to see anything beyond the oil level. During one such preflight I discovered the airplane’s controls were rigged in reverse. The shop insisted they were correct until the mechanic sat in the airplane and operated the controls himself. When it comes to unfamiliar airplanes and/or post-maintenance missions, it is wise to presume that somewhere something wrong is just waiting to kill you.

Happily, N15AP checked out fine. We were ready to go. Respecting Loretta’s limited interest in airplanes, I resisted the temptation to discuss the high-wing, four-place single’s performance or flying characteristics as part of the passenger briefing. Instead, I focused on more practical things that passengers should know including the function of the door, seat and safety belt/shoulder harness. We talked about the doors in particular because, in the C-182P, there is a locking lever instead of the door handle characteristic of earlier vintages and many other Cessna models like the C-180. The lever recesses into the armrest, so to open the door the lever must first be pulled up, out of the armrest, and then slightly past 90 degrees to release the latch. The system is simple and works well, but it is not entirely intuitive.

Buckled in and ready to go, I brought N15AP’s Continental O-470 engine to life. With 230 hp available, the engine produces a throaty sound, even at idle. This coupled with a yoke that in terms of size would do justice to a 747 makes the C-182 feel like a big airplane.

As expected, the runway in use was 19. Winds were also as expected, although at sustained levels a little higher than forecast. We taxied to the runway and did our run-up. All was normal and Loretta even seemed mildly enthusiastic. I wasn’t sure if it was the prospect of a romantic dinner complete with delicious dessert or our impending flight, but in the spirit that arguing with success is often ill advised, I didn’t seek to ascertain.

Run-up complete, we called the tower and received clearance to take off. The initial ground roll was quite short, largely due to winds. Winds above were even stronger and dramatically slowed progress over the ground during climb. Climbing at 85 knots, near best rate, we still had runway below us at a height of 700 feet. Accelerating to climb/cruise airspeed, we continued southbound. Our clearance was to fly runway ­heading to 2,000 feet msl before turning southeast-bound for Sugarbush.

Earlier anxieties dissipated as we climbed through 1,500 feet. The air was remarkably smooth given the winds, and better yet, Loretta was having a good time. Her interest in the surrounding sights suggested any apprehension about little airplanes was now in the past. I was flying with a rock star, and a happy one at that.

The good times were to be short-lived, however. The initial sign of trouble was a small vibration. Engine instruments showed green and the airplane was climbing as expected, so I wasn’t quite ready to conclude there was a real problem. But the sudden large bang and subsequent fire that occurred minutes later certainly changed my mind.

Loretta immediately recognized the situation was dire, and her ­reaction only made matters worse. She grabbed my shoulder and screamed over and over, “What’s happening?!” Caught in the moment, I screamed back, “Let me go; I have to fly the airplane,” along with some other less-than-loving words. Managing to free myself from her grip, and after a brief spell of panic surely typical for ­anyone faced

with an in-air engine explosion, I collected my wits and focused on the matter at hand.

Although oil covered the windscreen, the fire had self-­extinguished. The vibration stopped too; consistent with the airplane’s seized propeller and the absence of any engine noise. I lowered the nose to maintain airspeed and started an aggressive right turn back to the airport. We were at about 1,800 feet msl (1,500 feet agl). My plan was to complete the 180 turn in the hope that the winds would be sufficient to blow us back to Burlington. Remarkably, I also remembered to cut the mixture and kill the fuel, somewhat disorienting due to the floor-­mounted position of the valve.

“Tower, it’s 15AP, the Skylane. We have had a catastrophic engine failure, will be returning to Burlington, will attempt to make Runway 01.” The tower’s response was dutiful, but not particularly helpful. “15AP, would you like to declare an emergency?” The tower also said something about wanting the number of souls on board, “when you have time.”

Since we were going to be on the ground in about 90 seconds, I wasn’t sure by what measure of free time they were imagining. Still, I managed to convey our enthusiasm for declaring an emergency and the passenger manifest; “there are two of us, and we are on fire; please send the equipment.”

Although the fire appeared to be out, I suffered no guilt over the transmission. Smoke continued to emit from under the engine cowl. Where there is smoke there is fire — a reasonable application of poetic license given the circumstances. And at this point a crash-and-burn-free landing was by no means assured.

With the ground rushing up, I was working pretty hard to finish the turn while maintaining enough altitude to level the ship. I really didn’t want to be that statistic where everyone dies because the pilot decided to turn back without enough altitude. Of course, the alternative decision to land straight ahead with a failed engine off-airport has its own risks. If the airplane disintegrates on landing, any fire in play will accelerate, and no emergency services will be available immediately to put it out.

Although the peek-a-boo picture through the oil-smeared windscreen made targeting the runway difficult, I was pretty sure we would at least hit the airport. The strong south wind was indeed pushing us closer, but this presented its own challenge. The slightly higher approach reference airspeed needed to safely conduct a dead-stick landing combined with a 30-knot tailwind meant touchdown groundspeeds would be very fast. Assuming we made the runway, it might not be possible to stop the airplane in time to avoid going off the end. Disaster!

Loretta was still demonstrably terrified but no longer incapacitated. Panic has many forms and for some people the recovery of coherent function takes longer than others. I was relieved because, in the case where the landing was less than ideal, Loretta might be on her own exiting the airplane to escape any possible fire.

I asked Loretta to crack her door to prevent possible jamming in the case of a crash. The discussion we had about operating the door lever turned out to be prophetic; she engaged the door lever and the suction from the outside airflow did the rest. I then briefed her on what to do after landing: unbuckle, open the door, exit, and run away from the airplane as quickly as possible.

“Cleared to land” was the tower’s last transmission. It was time to change the focus from just making the airport to achieving something more graceful, like landing safely on one of the runways.

By now the forward windscreen was completely opaque, so my ability to judge runway height and distance was limited to a peripheral view out the left side. It was something of an improbable success that we managed to achieve close to level flight while lurching forward in the general direction of 01. To the extent there was any good news, it seemed we would at least make the airport. Unfortunately, we were still flying fast and high relative to the chosen runway.

I deployed the electrically operated flaps to 40 degrees in an attempt to slow the airplane. Up to this point I had elected to keep the airplane clean for maximum glide. The deceleration was dramatic, largely because our airspeed was substantially above the speed allowed for the requested flap setting. (A credit to Cessna engineers, the flaps remained attached to the airplane.)

Unfortunately, although we were slowing, the deceleration was not rapid enough. The airplane crossed the numbers at about 200 feet. Too high! In a last-ditch effort to get down, I cranked in a slip to the right, resulting in a more rapid descent and — a most welcome side effect — better visibility out the left side window.

Acknowledging the prospect of a less than perfect landing, I asked (well, more like commanded) Loretta to cinch her belt tight. There was no discussion. At this point we were largely in sync, at least in terms of the goal for the mission. The airplane touched down smoothly on Runway 01, and not so far from the threshold as anticipated given the erratic approach and glide angle. Still, with substantial wind on the tail, our speed over the concrete was dramatic.

As we whizzed by taxiway Bravo, about halfway down the ­approximately 4,000-foot runway, I could see the parade of firetrucks perched and ready. The airplane was slowing but the tires were screeching and squealing. Easy on the brakes. The last thing we needed was a blowout resulting in loss of control. Finally, and after crossing Runway 33, the intersecting runway, the airplane stopped, and with about 50 feet to spare. Switches off, we were down!

What happened next was no less dramatic. Staying true to our plan we threw off our harnesses, shoved open the doors and leapt out of the airplane, Loretta dashing off to the right and me to the left. The fire crew arrived and aimed their full regalia of high-pressure nozzles at the smoldering aircraft. In seconds, fire retardant spewed everywhere and made short order of any fire that remained. We were down and safe; all was well. At least, that’s what I thought …

I circled around the back of the airplane and ran toward Loretta, who was crumpled on the grass next to the runway. Although physically unhurt, it was clear she was not unscathed. Drenched in retardant from head to toe, her foamy white face said it all. (Apparently an overly enthusiastic retardant gun operator had managed to knock Loretta flat as she ran away from the airplane.)

Despite all attempts to comfort Loretta, and remove the sticky foam, my expressions of concern and our emergency landing’s successful outcome did not serve to carry the day. Loretta was miserable and the car ride back to Sugarbush that afternoon was painfully silent.

Loretta and I never did consummate our date at Chez Henri. There were a few phone calls, mostly initiated by me, but no more dates. Regrettably, it seemed our flying adventure together punctuated the end of our relationship.

By contrast, the C-182 lived to fly another day following replacement of its badly mangled and charred engine. Root cause for the failure was ­determined to be an absent intake tube gasket. Cylinder One was running lean to the point where ultimately detonation punched a hole in the piston. The resulting debris did the rest.

Detecting a missing intake tube gasket demands an ultra-ambitious preflight. Nonetheless, the C-182 experience has caused me to look for missing parts in difficult to reach places with just a little more enthusiasm. When it comes to damsels in distress, however, I fear I won’t win any accolades for dramatic rescues. While our culture tends to train boys from an early age that great romance will follow scary adventure and derring-do, I’m inclined to believe that romantic endings generally come only to those who prevent distress from occurring in the first place. Live … and learn!

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