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.

Immediately after that, there was a loud bang out front, and the prop seized and stopped faster than I thought possible. I touched the starter to see if there was any chance of a restart, and the prop was frozen in place. There was nothing below but houses, freeways and shopping centers.

I had already switched to Long Beach tower frequency, and after the big bang, I punched the mic button and announced, "Long Beach, Mooney 65V has a Mayday. The engine just failed. I'm heading for Compton."

I turned 90 degrees left toward the short runway at KCPM and heard Long Beach tower vectoring an LAPD helicopter to assist. I had a glimpse of the helicopter hovering on the north side of the airport as I tried to gauge my approach from the south.

Somehow, despite staring nervously at a stopped prop blade for several minutes, I was amazed that the Mooney found its way to the runway, barely clearing the airport fence and touching down as if I knew what I was doing (highly unlikely). The helicopter landed behind me on the ramp as I rolled off the runway, shut down and one of the officers walked over to make certain I was uninjured. He watched me clean up the seat for a moment, then went back to the helicopter and resumed his patrol.
Every pilot's nightmare is a total engine failure over the center of a major metropolitan area. That's exactly what happened to me.
It turned out the engine had thrown a rod and was basically history. Again, there were a few papers to fill out, but no one seemed too upset about my Mayday except me. The FAA decided I had done nothing worth rebuking, so there was no consequence to my Mayday.

Finally, in 1998, I had contracted to purchase, refurbish and deliver a Piper Lance from Santa Monica, Calif., to Nairobi, Kenya. The owner had flown in from Nairobi to make the trip, and we had managed to negotiate the first 9,500 nm without incident. On Easter Sunday, we were on the last leg of the two-week trip, from Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden to Nairobi in the heart of Africa.

The big 300 hp Lycoming went rough as we were flying across the Ogaden Desert, an expanse of rocks, sand, acacia trees and cobras along the southern border of Ethiopia with Kenya. The EGT for the number-two cylinder suddenly began to drop off the bottom of the scale on the engine analyzer. Engine roughness lasted only a minute or two before the Lycoming turned to stuttering and coughing; then, finally, quit completely.

This time, I knew the outcome was seriously in doubt. There was nothing below but irregular, rocky desert, no roads, nothing that would pass for a runway. I chose the only semi-flat space I could find and landed the Lance as gently as I could. The right gear caught in a rut shortly after touchdown and immediately separated from the aircraft, dropping the right wingtip to the dirt; then, the left gear lodged in another rut and the airplane slewed hard left and went sliding sideways into the acacia trees, wrapping the prop back over the cowling and breaking the engine off the firewall.


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