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.
And most of the time, there was no logical reason for concern. The cardinal rule in any emergency is to always FLY THE AIRPLANE. A door that comes open in flight is usually all hat and no cattle. I’ve had perhaps a half-dozen door pops in 50 years of flying, and none of them have been anything more than an inconvenience. And yes, most of them have been my own fault.
Most often, the door can be closed in flight by reducing speed to approach, inducing a medium right bank (for a right door) and adding left rudder for a slip to minimize airflow on the right side of the fuselage; then, slamming the door shut when suction is at a minimum.
Granted, one of my open doors was on a used 55 Baron I was ferrying to Australia, and the right-seat tank made it tough to fly the airplane and shut the door at the same time. (The autopilot was inop.) The safest course was to return to Santa Barbara for a delicate overweight landing. Tricky but not necessarily all that dangerous.
There’s usually no aerodynamic effect of a door pop other than a slight drag increase. A few airplanes react more adversely, but none become inherently uncontrollable. Still, more drag could be significant on a long flight, and the increased noise level could drive you nuts, but other than that, there’s usually no real emergency.
Alternators generally don’t last as long as engines, and for that reason, failures are more common than we’d like. They’re not much fun, but again, they’re not usually a cause for major alarm in VFR conditions, even in a single. An alternator failure in the soup at night is especially troubling and may force you to modify your destination to the nearest airport, but if you’re smart enough to power down everything you can do without and rely on backups, you should overcome.
A battery that’s in reasonable condition will usually last for at least a half hour, much longer if you get truly serious about reducing electrical load. Keep in mind that some airplanes employ two batteries, and when you exhaust one, you can switch to the second electrical power supply.
I hedge my bets on a night flight by always carrying a backup Icom portable VHF radio, a portable Garmin 296 GPS and a wide-span miner’s or camp light that I can strap to my forehead in case all else fails. All three of these items use AA batteries, and I always carry a dozen or so backup batteries, just in case. Theoretically, you could shut down everything except the transponder and maintain enough electrical reserve to run what you’d need for the approach.
COM failure is another problem that isn’t a real emergency but can be perplexing. After you’ve tried every possible combination of headset in both pilot and copilot positions, hand mic in both plugs, checked to see if audio works through the speakers (remember them?), the obvious easiest solution is to land at a nearby uncontrolled airport.
If that’s not practical, turn on every light in the airplane and enter the pattern with a continuous hard wing wag, preferably to 30 degrees or more. Once a controller spots the wag, he’ll very likely grab the light gun and give you either a red or green flashing light. If you’re like me (and I know I am) and haven’t seen a light signal in 30 years, you should still be able to decipher the general meaning of red or green lights.
Instrument failures are becoming less common these days with the advent of glass panels and the inevitable set of backup instruments, but malfunctions still happen. I ferried an old but generally well-maintained Duke from Fargo, N.D., to Amman, Jordan, and Abu Dhabi, UAE, and back seven times in the ’80s, and I lost a total of a dozen instruments, everything from a tachometer and several fuel gauges to an oil pressure gauge, a vacuum gauge, an altimeter and even an airspeed indicator. (Fortunately, the airplane was equipped with copilot instruments for the last two readouts.)
Here again, though, a backup, battery-powered GPS can be a life-saver in providing both altitude and airspeed information. Remember, however, the latter will be groundspeed, not indicated airspeed. If you’re flying an ILS into a 30-knot headwind in an A-36 Bonanza, you may have to look at a 60-knot or slower approach speed.
Garmin even offers a special electronic page on its portables that provides a pseudo-panel with miniature gauges that give you representations of airspeed, altitude, rate of climb, heading and turn coordinator, along with distance to next waypoint and estimated time en route.
If there’s no GPS on board, you may be left to estimate your approach speed by power setting and angle of attack. Those pilots who fly the same type of aircraft most of the time may have it easier than others. If you can approximate the glide angle during approach, you should be within 10-15 knots of your typical approach speed. That would be sloppy flying with a full set of instruments, but it should get you safely to the ground without an ASI.
Brake failure is another of those minor emergencies that may not be so minor under some circumstances. I was ferrying the first Extra 400 from Germany to Phoenix, Ariz., several years ago and was shooting the 19 ILS approach into Reykjavik in light snow. Runway 19 has a slight hump in the middle with a downhill slope on the opposite side headed for a short lava beach and a bay just behind it. The weather was reasonably decent, about 500 feet overcast and two miles visibility, and I broke out with a good view of the runway.
Reflexively, I tapped the top of the rudder pedals to make certain I had brake pressure. I didn’t. Both pedals went all the way to the floor. Oh well, probably just need to pump them up, I thought. That didn’t work, either.
I touched down as planned but rolled over the hump in runway 19, still pumping furiously, and started downhill on the other side with no brakes at all. The airplane wasn’t slowing appreciably, and it was obvious I was going to roll off the end into the lava field.
Accordingly, I pushed power back up and went around, climbing back to about 300 feet over the water. The controller was understandably surprised and asked, “N400EX, what are you doing?” with a combination of irritation and confusion. I explained my problem and said I’d get back to him as soon as I could put together a plan B.
Finally, I elected to land as short as possible on the uphill runway 1 at absolute minimum speed and hoped I could simply roll to a stop before I topped the hump. If that didn’t work, my last alternative would be to divert to the nearby air base at Keflavik where there’s over 10,000 feet of runway. There was no one else on the 19 approach, so the controller approved my landing and called out the equipment.
The landing turned out to be a total anticlimax. The airplane slowed quickly on the slight upslope, and I was able to turn off at midfield without problems.
The following morning, the mechanics at Iceland Air quickly found what they thought was the problem, a leaking brake cylinder, repaired it, and I was able to depart for Kulusuk, Greenland, by noon. During the repair, one of the engineers suggested I climb into the airplane’s right seat to see if those brakes were working properly. They were perfect, of course. Had I been smart enough to simply slide over to the right seat, the previous day’s Reykjavik landing would have been far less dramatic.
As luck would have it, I lost the pilot’s brakes again at Kulusuk, but now, I knew there was a good chance the right brakes would work just fine. They did. I slid across to the right seat, landed and flew the remainder of the trip thru Sondre Strom Fjord, Greenland; Iqaluit, Nunavut; Wabush, Labrador; Bangor, Maine and on to Phoenix from the right seat with no more problems.
If these “little” emergencies have anything in common, it’s that they don’t represent an immediate threat. They allow you some time to figure things out and decide on a rational solution. Just remember the first rule of emergency response, and you should be able to overcome most problems: Fly the airplane.