Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Aviation’s “Little” Emergencies

How to handle those in-flight problems that aren’t necessarily life threatening

I had just departed Long Beach, Calif., in a Bellanca Viking, headed for the Reno Air Races, when black oil began flowing out of the cowling and onto the windshield.

It was fairly obvious that someone had forgotten to tighten down the oil-filler cap, and that someone was me. I was in a hurry and took the lineman's word that the cap was on tight. It barely mattered. My fault for not checking.

Fortunately, I had been there once before with a retired airline pilot in an Aztec. He had made the same mistake on his right engine, though the resulting oil blowback did little more than stain the cowling. He apologized profusely for his omission but was extremely casual about climbing to pattern altitude, flying a normal downwind, base and final, and landing without any special precautions.

I had a little more of a problem, as oil was gradually producing a translucent black haze on the windshield as I turned back toward the airport. I flew the pattern at a greatly reduced power setting, lined up with the left side of the runway and landed without incident.

My airline buddy had already prepared me for what I'd find. I had lost a little over a quart of oil. At low power settings, the big IO-520 Continental was producing very little crankcase pressure, so oil loss was minimal. But any oil leak always looks like a huge torrent.

More often, minor oil leaks are a result of residual oil inside the cowling from a recent oil change or engine service or a leaking rocker- box cover. Trouble is, you have no way of knowing if it's the beginning of a major problem, such as a cracked oil line or a blown gasket, or if it's merely a minor trickle.

(I was flying a Navajo Chieftain out of Tenerife, Canary Islands, for Abidjan, Ivory Coast, several years back, when I noticed a tiny trickle of oil running back out of the left engine. I was four hours out with another four hours to go, 700 nm over the Mauritanian Sahara with nothing but sand and rock below and only one airport ahead, Bamako, Mali. I had been this way before and knew better than to stop there. Four extremely nervous hours later, I landed at Abidjan and checked the level—only two quarts lost. The left cowling was covered in oil. I wouldn't want to try that in a single, however.)

Certainly, one of the most dramatic little emergencies is a door coming open in flight. The initial symptoms can be terrifying. There's usually a loud bang when the door pops open, often followed by an equally scary rush of air. This usually happens right after takeoff, which makes it even more unnerving. Some pilots have even lost control and augered in as a result of a popped door.


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