The Friday afternoon weather was clear and visibility unlimited (CAVU), and we were heading south at 7,500 feet to Key West, Florida, with a planned one-night stop in New Port Richey to visit my brother and his wife.
What could go wrong?
The trip had been planned for a couple of weeks, so when I got home from work, my wife was packed and ready to go.
It took about an hour to drive from our home north of Atlanta to our hangar in Rome, Georgia. Hangars are as scarce as hens’ teeth in the Atlanta area, which is why we ended up in Rome…64 miles from our house.
Our airplane, a beautifully restored J-Model Bonanza, was fueled and ready to go. After a thorough preflight, we took off and climbed to 7,500 feet for a VFR flight to Tampa.
It was a beautiful, smooth flight. A good time for my wife to recline her seat and enjoy a peaceful nap.
We had been droning along for a little more than an hour when I thought I smelled smoke. I surveyed the ground to see if we had flown through smoke rising from the ground. I didn’t see anything on the ground that could account for the smoke smell, so I asked my wife, “Do you smell smoke?”
Just as I did, I noticed the needle moving on the oil pressure gauge. We were losing oil pressure. Rapidly.
My first thought was the damage that could occur running the engine without oil. The engine had been rebuilt less than a year before, so I wanted to avoid harming it if possible.
I reduced the throttle to idle, pulled the prop to high pitch and pulled the mixture control out to eliminate the fuel flow. Even though the propeller continued to spin, I thought there was less chance of causing damage than if I allowed it to continue to run.
It took only a few seconds to realize we were less than 5 miles from the Thomasville, Georgia, airport (TVI), so making the field without power would be no problem.
I turned toward the airport and trimmed the aircraft for the best power-off glide speed. Next, I looked up Thomasville’s radio frequency, which was its Unicom frequency since it’s an uncontrolled airport. I broadcast our position relative to the airport, our engine-out condition and our intention to land.
(After landing, I learned no one had heard my broadcast because I had misread the frequency off the chart.)
Now I had nothing to do except fly the airplane. The aircraft was trimmed for the best power-off glide speed, and we were descending slowly through 6,700 feet.
I knew we had the airport made, so I lowered the landing gear, which stopped the gear-up alarm, which I later learned was frightening for my wife. With the additional drag from our landing gear, our descent increased but not enough, so I began an aggressive slip to further accelerate our descent without increasing our speed. I wanted to land as soon as possible, so I could stop the engine from wind milling to reduce the chance of damage.
We landed on Runway 4, and our momentum allowed us to clear the runway and come to a stop a couple hundred feet down a taxiway.
As soon as we stopped, my wife started crying. I was surprised. I had never seen her cry. Then I realized I had failed to reassure her during the descent. I had known everything was fine, but I had not told her. She only knew we had an emergency. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought to let her know.
The FBO’s linemen towed us to the maintenance shop, which was still open…thankfully.
After washing the oil off the engine and side of the airplane, they filled it with oil, and I started the engine to trace the source of the leak.
It took one second to determine an external oil line had ruptured. Typically, there are no external oil lines, but the previous owner had installed an external oil filter similar to those on automobiles. It was mounted on the firewall behind the engine, so it required a line to flow oil from the engine to the filter and another to return the oil to the engine. The lines had been replaced during engine overhaul a few months before and shouldn’t have ruptured. They were designed for oil under high pressure, and the Bonanza’s engine pressure was only about 80 psi. We could only determine it was a rare defect in the line. The shop had enough high-pressure line to replace the ruptured section but not enough to replace the return line.
That would prove to be fateful.
The repair and cleanup were completed in two or three hours, and we were ready to proceed to our first stop in Tampa. Actually, that’s not completely true. I was ready, but my wife had decided she wasn’t getting back in that airplane.
It took my best sales job to convince her that it was safe. I told her I had flown thousands of hours since I was 16, and my dad even more in his 60 years of flying, and nothing like this had ever happened. It was a million-in-one occurrence and would never happen again.
Reluctantly, she finally agreed and climbed aboard, and although we arrived at Tampa Bay Executive Airport after dark, it was a pleasant and uneventful flight.
After a couple of days at my brother’s house on the water in New Port Richey, we took off, heading to Key West.
It was a beautiful day, so we flew VFR, enjoying the view along the coast. I avoided Victor Airway 225, which routes you directly from Fort Myers to Key West. It takes you several miles off the coast. We weren’t in a hurry, and we could jump across a much smaller stretch of water by crossing the Florida Bay to Islamorada. It’s also a much prettier flight, especially flying along the keys from Islamorada to Key West.
After several days in Key West, we headed home. Again, we planned to stop and visit my brother and his wife for a couple of days.
We reversed course and flew back to Tampa Bay Executive Airport and enjoyed ourselves for a few days in New Port Richey, including dressing up for a seniors’ Halloween costume party.
We chose another beautiful day for our return flight to Rome, Georgia.
Departing Tampa Bay Executive, we leveled off at 6,500 feet on a course that would take us directly to Columbus, Georgia. The route paralleled the coast a couple miles off shore for several miles until coming back over land in the vicinity of Cedar Key.
We were just past Cedar Key when it happened again.
Not believing my nose, I asked my wife, “Do you smell smoke?”
Sure enough, we were losing oil pressure just like the week before. I knew immediately we had blown the other external oil line.
Turning back toward Cedar Key airport, I estimated we were about 10 miles away, so I began a search on the map to determine if there might be a closer airport.
It appeared the area was marshy and void of decent landing options, so I focused on Cedar Key and looked up their Unicom frequency.
Once on Cedar Key’s Unicom frequency, I heard another aircraft announcing it was inbound to Cedar Key. I keyed the microphone and announced to the Piper Cherokee that I was Bonanza N19FL, 10 miles northeast, inbound to Cedar Key with an engine-out.
He responded immediately, saying he would stay clear of the airport. I remember him asking me if we would be able to make it, and I replied, “I hope so.” To this day, I don’t know why I responded that way as I knew we would make it. Maybe I was being a bit dramatic. I didn’t know I was so inclined toward drama, and I’m not proud of it. Also, my dramatic retort scared the hell out of my wife, who once again was as quiet as a mouse as she listened to the exchange with the Cherokee and the screaming alarm.
Even though I had regrets from the previous week for not reassuring my wife that everything was fine, I did it again. I never said a word to her after asking her if she smelled smoke.
As we approached Cedar Key airport from the northeast, I determined we didn’t have enough altitude to enter downwind and land on runway five, even though that was the runway favored by the winds.
But I was going to be too high for a straight-in approach for runway 23 unless I killed excess altitude by slipping. As most pilots know, slipping is a great technique to burn off altitude without gaining speed, so once I was set up on final approach for runway 23, I lowered the landing gear, dropped my flaps and waited a few seconds to determine how my descent looked. I saw that I was still too high, so I applied full left aileron and full right rudder for about 10 seconds before neutralizing the controls and reassessing my glide path. I was still too high, so once again I applied full left aileron and full right rudder, this time for only about five seconds to ensure I wasn’t losing too much altitude. I remember repeating the slip four or five times before I was satisfied our glide path would get us to the first third of the runway.
The closer we got to the airport, the easier it was to determine the correct glide path. We ended up landing just past the numbers, with enough momentum to clear the runway on the far end.
After I pulled the airplane to a tiedown using a tow bar, a good Samaritan flew us in his turbine-powered Cessna Caravan to Ocala, where we rented a car and drove home.
A week later, my dad rescued the Bonanza by plugging the oil ports, bypassing the external oil filter, and flying it to St. Augustine.
My wife never flew in the airplane again. I blame myself for terrorizing her twice. I’m puzzled why I didn’t have the presence of mind to reassure her. Some have suggested I must have been so focused on getting us down safely, but the truth is I never was concerned. The idea of a dead-stick landing is far scarier than actually experiencing one.
A few months later, I reluctantly sold the airplane, which, as I mentioned before, was a real beauty.