I Learned About Flying From That: X Marks the Spot

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As a longtime reader of aviation accident stories in I Learned About Flying from That, I never thought that so soon into my aviation adventure I'd find myself telling a story of my own. All of the events that follow took place during an aviation-packed day that would begin with the eager anticipation of visiting the 2014 AOPA Regional Fly-In in Spokane, Washington, and end with forest firefighters rushing to open a closed runway so I could land in the middle of a mountain range. But that would be skipping ahead in this story.

The day began well before dawn, just like any other day when I look forward to flying. A quick review of the Renton, Washington (KRNT) weather confirmed that it would be a light IFR morning with OVC 016 and tops at 050 — plenty safe for getting out into the clear before overflying the Cascade mountains. I had been looking forward to the prospect of seeing the sunrise at 10,000 feet for weeks. The enticement of a pancake breakfast, and the chance to meet all the AOPA faces that I "know" from the weekly articles and online safety courses pumped up my excitement even more. I would find myself putting many of those safety tips to good use by the end of the day.

In order to avoid the expected crowd at the airport hosting the event, Felts Field Airport (KSFF), I decided to fly into nearby Spokane International (KGEG), designated as the spillover location for Felts Field. As it turned out, I was the first one into KGEG that morning, and an entire bus was waiting to take my friend Joe, who came along for the day, and me across town into KSFF. With pancakes happily in my stomach and bags of free pens and stickers in hand, I sat down to enjoy the wonderfully funny Ron Machado talk about how to mentally prepare for the unexpected.

After grabbing lunch, meeting up with fellow pilots I know from work at Microsoft, and seeing the inside of every plane on the ramp, I was amazed how fast the time had passed. It was time to pick up a shuttle back to KGEG for the trip home. Jon, a fellow Microsoft pilot, would join Joe and me on the return trip.

As Joe and Jon toured the other fancy planes on the ramp at KGEG, I ran through the meticulous preflight. Everything checked out, and we were soon rolling to the end of the incredibly long taxiway to get everything prepared for a simple IFR trip down the Victor 2 airway.

We got cleared to take off from Runway 21, and I gently rolled the Arrow up to the numbers to call out "heading confirmed." The Arrow's engine came to life as I advanced the throttle with the brakes set and waited to double-check every panel indication. Everything looked normal. I released the brakes and we were off. The climb rate was somewhat slow, but that was expected due to the hot afternoon sun. The tower soon handed me off to Spokane Approach and I was cleared direct to the GEG VOR to join Victor 2. The ride at the filed 6,000 feet was fairly bumpy over the hot, grassy plains of eastern Washington. I asked for a change to 8,000 feet, and we settled into a comfortable cruise.

The atmosphere was relaxed in the cockpit. Joe is a commercial rated pilot looking to work on his CFI and fly missionary flights in Africa. Jon is a longtime pilot, interested in earning his instrument ticket and eager to observe an IFR flight in action.

As we got close to the Ellensburg VOR, Seattle Center wanted us to climb higher, to 11,000 feet, in order to clear a firefighting TFR that had been in place for several weeks. Not looking forward to the sluggish climb to that stratospheric height for the Arrow, I responded with a firm "unable" to ATC and offered the ideas of vectoring me north around the TFR at 10,000 feet or sending me south toward the CHINS ONE arrival. I particularly looked forward to doing the CHINS ONE arrival since I was excited to put to use my knowledge of STARs that had sat unused since the IFR written. The thought that the route would take me over a vast expanse of forest in Rainier National Park never crossed my mind.

Seattle Center cleared me to the Ellensburg VOR (ELN) and then the Raddy intersection, which is on the CHINS ONE arrival. Just before arriving at ELN, the controller sent me off to Seattle Approach. Upon checking in, however, Seattle Approach wanted to know if I was ready for an amended clearance. After I responded with a quick "ready to copy," the controller sent me back on Victor 2 and negotiated with me to go up to 10,500 feet. A mere 500 feet, I thought, was not too much to ask to get a fairly direct route home. Taking this vector back to the airway would turn out to be the one act that likely saved us from being on the evening news.

After the Arrow sluggishly made its way up to 10,500 feet, I noticed that our groundspeed had slowed to a mere 97 knots from its usual 125- to 130-knot range. Remembering the 11- to 13-knot headwind I was expecting at this height, I thought perhaps we were just paying back the incredible tailwind that morning. Cross-checking with the airspeed I noticed that we were not speeding back up after leveling off. Aha! It must be the richer mixture I used for the climb, I thought, and I leaned the mixture to get the most from that trusty Lycoming.

As I was still thinking about the mixture, the engine tone made a sudden and abrupt change. It was a low-frequency shudder and thudding noise that resonated through the cabin. I took one look at my airspeed and noticed it was dropping, as was my altitude. Jon, being a great supportive right-seat pilot, offered to help read out the engine roughness checklist to lessen my workload. Fuel pump, on. Tanks, switched. Mags, left and right bank, both sounded just as rough. Prop speed, adjusted. It made no difference. All the engine instrument indications from oil pressure and cylinder temperature to fuel pressure all looked good. At this point we had lost a full 500 feet and we had a critical decision to make. Do we continue on to cross the rest of the mountain pass, which is rising up quickly, or do we turn around and put the airplane on the ground in the middle of the valley?

To be completely honest, a hint of get-home-itis crossed my mind for a fraction of a second. I thought that we could ride out this rough-sounding engine so we would not have to figure out how else to get home that night. However, the years of reading stories about pilots who should have put their planes down earlier to avoid their disastrous end took hold of me. "Are you crazy? Land this bird now!" I told myself.

A quick glance at my VFR sectional chart, which I always have open even during IFR flights, revealed Cle Elum airport (S93) as a big, inviting circle. Before even thinking about contacting ATC, I started banking the plane to head toward the airport. "Seattle Approach, Arrow 82M is experiencing engine roughness and we are going to divert to Cle Elum airport, Sierra Nine Three. We would like to get vectors." Without skipping a beat the controller gave me a heading of 070 degrees and pointed me toward the airport. My eyes changed over to spotting the field, which was a lot harder than I thought under pressure. Initially I fixated on what turned out to be the main road in town. After another glance at the sectional, I finally spotted the words Cle Elum on a narrow piece of tarmac that would be our safe haven. Thank goodness Seattle Approach did not keep us on the CHINS arrival that Center had steered me toward (at my behest no less!), or we would have been searching for the flattest part of a vast forest to land in right now.

On the spiral down over the airport, we attempted several times to see if we could produce enough power to hold altitude. Each time I advanced the throttle, I would get back only the louder sound of a sick engine telling me to stop torturing it. The protest of several backfires later, I decided not to negotiate for more thrust and to accept what I had for the corkscrew down. There was plenty of energy left as we circled our way down to the 1,944-foot field elevation. When we passed 8,100 feet, which was the minimum vectoring altitude for Seattle Approach in that area, the controller asked whether I intended to continue IFR into S93. Cle Elum has an approach? I was puzzled. Ah, he wants me to cancel IFR so he can continue helping me. No problem: The magical words were exchanged and we were now under a new VFR relationship.

At about 6,000 feet or so, my calm-sounding controller came on the radio again to inform me of another piece of news. "Cle Elum is currently closed due to firefighting. Are you declaring an emergency?" This was another moment when the many FAA safety talks I have attended paid off. The speakers at these forums regularly preach the message that nobody ever got into trouble declaring an emergency — if something is actually going wrong (and you are not buzzing the control tower). No, there is no paperwork, and there isn't even a phone call most of the time. I confidently came back on the radio: "Yes, we are declaring an emergency; we are going to land at Cle Elum." The controller responded with a phrase that I have read only in cockpit voice recorder transcripts or seen on episodes of Air Crash Investigation, "Arrow 82M, how many souls are on board?" Wow, this really is happening.

A period of silence then came and went in the cockpit and on the radio. I was busy keeping us in a steady spiral down, which seemed to take forever from 10,000 feet, and the controller, as it turned out, was in contact with the firefighters on the ground, who scrambled onto the runway to remove an orange X, weighed down with rocks. Approach came back on the radio to let us know that we were about to go below radar coverage, that there would be folks on the ground to meet us, and to ask if we would kindly call later to let them know we are OK. "Arrow 82M, frequency change approved."

Continuing to spiral for the next few minutes, I repeatedly called out on CTAF, "Cle Elum traffic, Arrow 8182 Mike is spiraling down over the airport. We have declared an emergency and are landing full stop Runway 25, Cle Elum."

Joe did a really great thing at this point by calling out the pattern altitude for Cle Elum. It gave me something to shoot for during the dizzyingly long spiral. After about five to six 360s, I noticed that my spiral had shifted south from the wind pushing us crucially away from the airport. Making a big shift back toward the runway, I made one last loop at about 2,500 feet agl and decided I should not make another one in order to preserve energy. Turns out hitting the recommended "key point" is not easy when you have adrenaline pumping due to a real emergency. I was still way too high to turn base as I exited the final circle, so I decided to extend the downwind leg to bleed off the extra energy (a great tip from my PPL instructor Amanda Hartley). From the very start of this diversion, I was expecting the engine to fall silent at any time, and making it in one shot was the only thing on my mind.

Turning base to final, I saw that we were sufficiently high to make the field. Knowing the Arrow drops like a brick, I brought the throttle almost to idle but kept us high and started a slip only after seeing we were clearly close enough to make it dead stick. Flaps 10, slip a little more. Flaps 25, OK, now we are actually high and fast. Flaps 40, and a sudden jolt of deceleration later, we were looking at a sight picture to touch down 100 to 200 feet past the numbers. Perfect.

Not caring if it was a greaser landing, I safely planted it on the ground and slowed us down well before the midfield taxiway on the 2,500-foot runway. As we rolled onto the taxiway, the firefighters were standing by to help in the event we did not arrive in the shape of an airplane. One of the firefighters even had a video camera filming us coming in on final.

We were all elated to be safely on the ground. One of the firefighters called Approach back to let the controllers know we made it safely. I also called up the flight school people we rented the plane from to let them know to not expect us back as planned. We tied up the plane at the field and went about arranging for transportation back home. The firefighters continued their generosity by offering us a ride into town. Once there, we grabbed a bite and got picked up by a friend of Joe's, who took us back to Seattle.

The mechanics have since figured out it was a combination of a faulty fuel servo and a stuck valve that left us with just partial power that day. Knowing this gave me a certain amount of comfort because we could not have caught it in the preflight. It was just bad luck (or good luck depending on how you look at it) that it failed where it did, when it did.

So what lessons did I take away from this adventure?

1. Always know at any moment where you would go if you have to land and land now.

2. Getting bored during cruise flight? Take a look at that VFR sectional or out the window to have a spot ready in mind.

3. Carefully consider the terrain you plan to fly over and know what you would be prepared to do if you have to set it down.

4. Stay current with your emergency procedures and practice them regularly. At minimum, read over the emergencies section of the POH regularly so you have the memory items seared into your mind.

5. Do not hesitate to declare an ­emergency with ATC. If you experience any feeling that it might be a real emergency, it probably is. Just use those magic words so controllers can provide you the maximum assistance possible, summoning help that may not otherwise be available.

And yes, I definitely learned about flying from this.

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