Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Consequences Of Mayday

If you survive a Mayday, everyone worries about what will happen later. Here’s the real story from a poster boy of Maydays.

Almost immediately, a suitably calm voice from a British Airways jet comes back with, "November flight, this is Speedbird 34, we read you loud and clear. What is the nature of your emergency?" Scottish Control also answers, weak and broken, and I explain to everyone listening that I'm losing power and turning off my original track toward Wick, U.K., and heading for Stornoway, now 197 nm distant according to both Garmins. I read out my exact position, persons on board, airspeed, altitude, heading and fuel state. Speedbird 34 relays to Scottish Control, and they advise they've notified search and rescue.

The engine is regular rough, as I descend toward the angry ocean, hoping warmer air down low will grant me a reprieve.

Shortly after I level at 3,000 feet, a British Hawker SAR jet comes up on frequency and advises his ETA is 11 minutes. The engine improves slightly as I gain on Stornoway, then goes semi-smooth a few minutes later, coughing irregularly, but definitely improved.

The Hawker forms up and begins to fly wide circles around me. As the distance to Stornoway drops through 100 nm on the GPS, the Hawker pilot advises a rescue helicopter will be taking over SAR duty so he can depart.

A short time later, I spot a twin-rotor helicopter arcing around to parallel my course on the left side. The Hawker pilot wishes me luck and rockets up into the overcast.

Power is smooth now, as the helo escorts me toward the Scottish coast, barely becoming visible straight ahead. Down to 1,000 feet above the water, we go feet dry together and land in loose formation, and I shut down in front of the FBO.

After filling out a few forms, I'm told I'm free to go. The engine checks out perfectly on the ground, and the engineer volunteers that it must have been carb ice, though carb heat was the first corrective measure I applied. Maybe a bad case of ice beyond the limits of the system, he suggests. Maybe some other transient phenomenon. We'll never know.

Whatever the cause, I never received a bill for services from anyone. There was no board of inquiry, no one pointing fingers or suggesting I had overreacted.

Flashback to 1989. I was returning from the San Francisco Bay Area in my Mooney on a blistering hot July day. The temperature had been sizzling all the way down the coast, and as I descended into the Los Angeles Basin, it climbed even higher. CHTs and oil temps had been running near redline despite a super-rich mixture and open cowl flaps.

Every pilot's nightmare is a total engine failure over the center of a major metropolitan area. That's exactly what happened to me. I had Long Beach in sight when the prop suddenly ran away and screamed up to 3,200 rpm before I could even think about bringing the control back.


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