Sky Kings: Double Trouble at Denver

Mistakes pile up while flying a new airplane.

Sky Kings Twin Comanche

Sky Kings Twin Comanche

Photo by Andrzej Rutkowski

After just over two years of flying our Comanche, Martha and I "needed" a second engine, and more knobs, levers, switches and gauges. In short, we "needed" a Twin Comanche. But we couldn't afford one. That's why the "bargain" Twin Comanche in Trade-A-Plane caught our eye. We knew the airplane would be rough, but we could swing it financially.

So, in October 1972, off to Teterboro, New Jersey, we went in our Comanche. We arrived late morning, did a quick flight in Twin Comanche N7026Y, and bought it on the spot. As anticipated, it was rough. The logs revealed this training plane had had five gear-up landings. The autopilot did not work. The door had no seal, and the heater didn't work.

Our plan was for Martha to fly the Comanche home while I flew the Twin Comanche, despite the fact I had never flown a twin-engine airplane before. Back then, you could fly a twin without a multiengine rating if you didn't carry passengers — so I would be legal. Plus, I had read everything I could about flying multiengine airplanes.

We started home to San Diego with both airplanes that evening, even though I would be flying an unfamiliar airplane in the dark. We flew to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, so Martha could drop off the seller. Minutes after my next takeoff, I heard a loud screaming noise. The right engine was way over redline. Pulling the prop lever back did nothing. So I retarded the throttle until the rpm came back under redline, leaving the engine nearly at idle.

A patient and concerned controller helped me get lined up with the runway at Harrisburg Airport for an uneventful landing.

The prop had simply lost the nitrogen charge that balances oil pressure to control the prop pitch, and we were ready to go early the next morning.

After fuel stops in Indianapolis and Rolla, Missouri, we headed to Denver, knowing we would arrive after dark. We also knew the trip would be IFR with icing in the clouds, so we planned to stay on top. We used the second comm radio in each plane to stay in contact. As we flew, the cloud tops rose, and we each repeatedly asked for higher. At 12,000 feet we entered the clouds and began picking up ice.

My inoperative heater was now significant. Ice covered the windshield and side windows, and there was no way for me to melt it off. With the door seal missing, cold air breezed through the cockpit and snow piled up on the empty seat beside me. With more than two hours left, I began to urgently need to relieve myself. I looked around for something like a sick-sack, but with no autopilot, I couldn't spare the attention to find anything.

The accumulating ice began to deeply worry me. Due to an unforecast upslope condition, the weather at Denver was going down rapidly. Landings were not possible in airports in all directions due to low ceilings and visibilities with snow. I lied to Martha and told her that I had a "little bit" of ice. I was astounded when she told me she had almost no ice at all. Gullibly, I couldn't understand why, when she was only a little behind me, she was getting so much less ice. Still, I worried about her.

Then my right engine quit. As I had read I should, I pushed up the mixtures, props and throttles on both sides. The engine came back to life. After I leaned both engines again, the right mixture lever was forward of the left. Then the engine failed again. This time after leaning, the right mixture lever was even farther forward. After several repetitions of this, the right mixture lever was fully forward. When the engine failed again, there was no way to get it back. I feathered the engine.

An hour out of Denver, with a load of ice and only one engine, the airplane could no longer hold altitude and began a gradual descent. The reality of my situation began to sink in. When I got to the runway, with a 5,000-foot elevation, I would have to land right there. There would be no going around. Plus, I would have to spot the runway from the little hinged pilot's vent window. Shaking from the cold and the need to relieve myself, I wouldn't be the sharpest pilot ever.

At Denver, I requested a surveillance approach so that the controller would guide me to the runway with radar. Considering my distractions, I had decided that dialing in a frequency and following needles might be too much for me. Yet another calm, patient controller gave me the help I needed. I needed a lot. I couldn't remember my minimum descent altitude of 5,832 feet, and I didn't have the brainpower to simplify the number to something like 5,900. I asked the controller for the number repeatedly.

Right of centerline, I spotted the approach lights through the little vent window and sidestepped over. When I reduced the power to land, I was startled by a wild yaw. I had trimmed off the rudder pressure to compensate for the unbalanced thrust from only one engine out on a wing. I didn't have the training or experience to anticipate the yaw from the power reduction.

The approach controller cleared me to land and told me to contact ground control after landing. The runway was snow-covered and slick, with windrows blocking the taxiway exits. I told ground control, "I'm on the ground now; what would you like me to do?" The controller replied, "Make a 180 and taxi south." I responded, "You want me to turn around right here?" He repeated, "Yes, make a 180 there and taxi south."

One of the many fire and rescue vehicles accompanying me on the parallel taxiway radioed, "Hey, he's still on the runway!" The controller asked, "Are you still on the runway?" After I said yes, I heard the roar of a jet airliner over the top of me on a go-around.

Once inside the FBO I realized I hadn't heard Martha on the ­frequency for some time. Approach control re­assured me: "We're talking to her. She'll be on the ground soon."

After Martha joined me I learned she had had her own drama, complete with fire and rescue vehicles. Her propeller had become unbalanced with ice. She'd pulled the prop control back and pushed it in, which we had learned helps shed propeller ice. This time the propeller control broke, leaving her prop stuck at 1,900 rpm. With the ice and reduced power, she'd begun her own inexorable descent, ending with a surveillance approach and landing at Denver.

Our reaction to this trip at the time was that this string of close calls was due to bad luck. We weren't close to understanding that we had brought them on ourselves. Worse yet, I'd unwittingly put myself in a position where I was especially vulnerable to a poorly maintained airplane. Given the circumstances, our close calls were almost inevitable.

We were the epitome of "pilots who should scare us." Overoptimistic and devoid of wariness and skepticism, we'd left little room for things to go wrong.

Our big hurry had clouded our judgment. We'd bought a rough airplane without a pre-purchase inspection. Then we'd rushed to take off at night with me in that unfamiliar airplane that, although legal, I was not rated to fly. On the leg to Denver we'd taken off planning to fly in instrument conditions at night and to stay out of icing conditions by keeping on top of the clouds. Far from conducting surveillance for risk and developing risk-mitigation plans, we'd been oblivious to risk.

What made us so poor about recognizing and mitigating the risks? In large part we were young and hadn't yet seen many things go wrong. We didn't think bad things could happen to us. And like many attracted to flying, we were blessed with "fine self-images." We thought we could manage just about anything.

So what is the aviation community to do about pilots like us who should scare us? I don't think we can do much about the hard-wired tendency to be in a hurry. But perhaps we could make pilots understand that the desire to hurry must be offset by the management of risks. I think the answer is teaching pilots to include risk management in their preflight planning from their very first flight lesson. I hope pilots who are thoughtfully taught to identify, assess and mitigate the risks of flight will understand that risks are real and ever-lurking, and that they will continue the habit of risk management for the rest of their aviation lives.

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