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Pilot Experiences A Blowout Over Booneville

If you ask me, if you gotta go down, go down in Booneville, Arkansas.

Blowout Over Booneville
Illustration by Barry Ross.
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It was a beautiful VFR Thanksgiving Day, and I was en route from Russellville, Arkansas, to McAlester, Oklahoma, in my Cessna 150J. The little bird suits me just fine, partly because we were born in the same year, 1969. I had earned my private pilot certificate in August, and McAlester would be my furthest out-of-state hop.

After picking up flight following with Memphis Center just west of Russellville, I was handed off to Razorback Approach near Booneville. It was pretty much a straight east-to-west flight. At 4,500 feet and cruising along at 95 miles per hour, I was enjoying the solitude, the mountains and valleys around me and the soothing hum of the Continental O200A. HOG MOA was inactive, and I hadn’t seen another bird since takeoff. There was scant traffic on my frequency with Razorback Approach, and it had just given me updated wind, temperature and altimeter for Fort Smith. All was right in the world.

Suddenly, engine vibration changed. It deepened. I waited a few seconds to see if a change in wind shear had caused the anomaly, but I knew something was off. Immediately, I rolled the bird into a right bank and contacted Razorback Approach:

“Razorback Approach, Cessna 3-4-Tango-Kilo.”

“Go ahead, 3-4-Tango-Kilo.”

“I’ve picked up an odd vibration, and I’m heading back to Booneville Airfield.”

“Cessna 3-4-Tango-Kilo, are you declaring an emergency?”

I had positive control of the aircraft. Flight controls and throttle were responsive, temps and pressures were in the green, so I did not think the situation warranted an emergency declaration.

“Negative. I’m going to head back, put it on the ground, and see what’s going on.”

“Cessna 3-4-Tango-Kilo, Fort Smith…wind…altim…”

“Razorback Approach, Cessna 3-4-Tango-Kilo. Say again last transmission.”

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“…Kilo…Smith…knots…altimeter…”

“Razorback Approach, please say again. Last transmission unreadable.”

“…Tango…ith…ind…alti…”

For a moment, I thought I might have lost Razorback’s signal because earlier, Memphis had delayed handing me off because I was not receiving Razorback clearly until well West of Booneville. I reached up to adjust the volume and noticed the radio blink off, back on and off again.

A silver flash on my lower left and a crackling-snapping sound drew my attention to the area around the Master Switch. Something popped, and a cloud of brown-gray smoke arose from beneath the instrument panel.

Quickly, I shut the Master Switch off and thought, “Holy crap! This isn’t good.” I reached up and set the transponder to 7700. Looking through the wind screen, I could clearly see Booneville Airfield several miles out. I seemed high, so I increased my descent. I looked back at the transponder, and thought, “Is this really an emergency? The aircraft is still responsive.” As I was reaching up to switch to 7600, I thought, “There’s no power.” No flames were present, so I opened the right window, then the left to clear the cockpit of smoke.

“A silver flash on my lower left and a crackling-snapping sound drew my attention to the area around the Master Switch. Something popped, and a cloud of brown-gray smoke arose from beneath the instrument panel.

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Aviate, navigate and communicate. Two of these were nonfactors at this point, so I gave all my attention to the airfield. At first, I thought I saw an aircraft at departure, but it was just the runway identifier 9. I didn’t see any active aircraft on the runway or taxiway. Scanning the traffic pattern, I thought, “No one knows I’m inbound.” Although I did not see any traffic, I wanted to alert a potential unseen aircraft of my presence, so I reached down and flipped on the Landing, Taxi and Navigation Lights. As I toggled the nav lights, my drill instructor reached through 30 years and barked, “Middleton, what in the [email protected]#$ are you doing? You’ve no power!” I immediately turned all switches off…not that it mattered.

Back to scanning the traffic pattern, I was less than a mile from the numbers, doing just over 100 miles an hour. Reaching to drop flaps, I thought, “What if I lose all power?” so I was cautious about pulling throttle. I still had no idea what was wrong with my bird. I stayed on target and pulled throttle to 2,000 rpm. Once clear of obstacles and over the grass, I pulled back to 1,500, which dropped me to about 85 mph. Turning the nose left, I slipped the bird hard in, to roughly 10 feet over the runway. Descending at a little over 75 mph, my line of sight transitioned from landing point to end of runway, and I touched down while pulling power to idle.

Landing never felt so good! I slowed and back-taxied to the ramp and tie-downs. After shut down, I did a quick assessment without leaving the cockpit. Except for the faint smell of burnt plastic, everything seemed normal. Using my phone, I did a quick search for Razorback Approach and called them. I told them I was the pilot of Cessna 3-4-Tango-Kilo and was safely on the ground at Booneville Airfield. They confirmed my tail number and my safety, then we hung up. I climbed out, walked around the propeller and lifted the inspection hatch. At that time, a car pulled through the nearby gate.

Crispy, melted and dripping wires and malformed components greeted me when I looked into the engine compartment. Battery cables were charred and smoldering. Clock and Hobbs fuse wires had burned away. Everything was either coated in soot or sprinkled with flecks of black. I was bewildered. Cautiously pulling the battery cover, I saw the battery had melted corners, which were soft to the touch. I looked up and saw Bill, the airport manager, walking toward me. He looked concerned. Razorback Approach had called him as soon as they lost contact with me. I told Bill what had happened. He said, “Glad you made it. It’s always a concern when I get that call.”

Bill looked into the compartment and then back at me. We bounced probable cause ideas off one another for a bit, then he looked back in and said, “Ah, there’s the problem.” The end of the right-side exhaust had completely blown out. The muffler had a gaping maw that had been breathing fire onto my battery, solenoid and other electrical components. I looked at Bill and said, “Well, that’s not good,” and then, “You know…I have a brand-new right-side muffler in the garage.”

“Reaching to drop flaps, I thought, ‘What if I lose all power?’ so I was cautious about pulling throttle. I still had no idea what was wrong with my bird.

Several years ago, the previous owner ordered a muffler for the left side, but the company sent a right-hand by mistake. The distributor sent him the left one and told him to keep the right because return shipping and handling would not be cost effective. It came with the bird when I bought it back in March. The muffler was brand new, in the box, with packing, documentation and receipts. What were the chances!

By the way, Bill is also one of Arkansas’ top-tier A&P IAs. Within a minute, we had a plan. We tied the bird down, and I used Booneville’s courtesy car that night and returned bright and early the next morning.

We began work immediately. The solenoid had shorted out, causing the ground wire to cook all the way back through the firewall to the Master Switch. We stripped and replaced wires and terminated obsolete lines and components. The shiny-new muffler was a godsend. Thanks to Bill’s expertise and savvy, I was back in the air by 14:00 in a cleaner, more reliable 3-4-Tango-Kilo. On the way home, I contacted Memphis Center and received confirmation the transponder was functioning properly. I touched down at home base around 15:00. The next day, Saturday, I was able to make the flight to McAlester, Oklahoma, and back without incident. All was good to go.

In an emergency, aviators seldom ponder the seriousness of the situation; we just want to land the bird safely. Once we walk away, we then have the luxury of reflection and contemplation. First of all, I now pay the exhaust stacks a bit more attention rather than just giving the pipe a good shake. Next, I’m a solid fan of Flight Following. It is good to know that had I been hanging upside-down in a pine tree, someone would have been looking for me.

I am also grateful. Randall Taylor, my PFI, drilled in me the basics of emergency management and even had me going through motions while sitting in a chair with my eyes closed. At the end of a long flight, he would create a simulated emergency, cross his arms and give me that look that said, “deal with it.” Dealing with it when tired, achy and a little grumpy from the long lesson was perfect training. I am also thankful to Seth Lake, my DPE, who hit me hard on aircraft ownership and emergency descents, as well as continuous learning.

Obviously, I could have handled the situation a bit differently, but I landed the bird and not only walked away but flew away the next day. I owe the last part to Bill Tucker, a kind professional who treated 3-4-Tango-Kilo as if she were a brand-new, complex high-performance aircraft.

Again, if you gotta go down, hope to go down in Booneville, Arkansas. Godspeed. 

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