FLYING LESSON by Daniel Kuttner
I was a student commercial pilot feeling my stuff.
I decided to take a cross-country trip from Santa Monica, California to Omaha, Nebraska. Although the jaunt started in fun-to visit my Mom and to build time for my commercial pilot's certificate, it was to become a valuable flying lesson.
To share expenses and flying chores, I talked with several other pilots. One was an instrument-rated friend, Vic. A persuasive guy, he regaled me with tales of French-Canadian women he could hook me up with. This finally convinced me to extend our planned flight all the way to Montreal, Canada, where his folks lived.
We chose our rental plane carefully: it had to be a manageable IFR platform with a good complement of avionics. Since I had flown most of my 150 hours in Grumman Americans, I chose one of our FBO's Grumman Travelers with a full panel, including an encoding altimeter and other instruments such as DME, ADF and dual navcoms radios. This was a decade or so before today’s all-glass cockpits and GPS, mind you.
In preparation for the trip, I asked the FBO's avionics technician to ensure all was well with the radios. I had flown the airplane recently and remembered a peculiar engine vibration, so I asked Vic to mention that when he checked with the aircraft mechanic.
The mechanic, a cheery sort we called “Smiley”, said he was aware of the vibration. He quickly checked the aircraft for trouble. With his trademarked, gap-toothed smile, he assured us that the vibration was nothing serious.
The big day arrived. Since it was marginally VFR (visual flying rules), Vic flew the departure on an IFR (instrument)-to-VFR-on-top clearance.
On the trip east, we encountered a wide range of weather, from calm and sunny to windy with heavy thunderstorms. We tackled cross-winds, turbulence and high-density-altitude takeoffs. We even flew in uncontrolled airspace, which was a strange feeling for a big-city guy like me. Freedom can be scary!
As we flew on, only that peculiar vibration bothered us. We had plenty of time to theorize as to its source.
We decided it would be prudent to divide flying chores: Right seat guy to navigate and manage radios, left seat to fly. We also decided on emergency procedures: left seat would continue to fly the airplane, while right seat would help as needed. We traded seats with each landing.
We agreed that even if an actual emergency did not arise, if the pilot encountered three simultaneous "concerns" we would make a swift, precautionary landing close-by.
During the trip across the Southwest, on to Omaha, and from there to Montreal, everything went smoothly. Yes, the women in Montreal were pretty and friendly. Luckily, Vic was fluent in French.
By the time we were due to leave Montreal for the West Coast, we both felt as if we could handle anything. We knew the aircraft, had some skills, worked well as a team, and we were having fun.
Our Montreal departure was delayed twice by heavy rain and snow-showers - definitely non-Southern California weather. Furthermore, time was running out on our booking of the Traveler, so we were becoming anxious to depart.
The following day we loaded the airplane again. The forecasts and pilot reports said that as long as we didn't climb too high, we wouldn't have to worry about wing icing. That was important, as icing can reduce wing lift enough to cause a crash.
So off we went, with Vic as pilot, in the left seat. We had filed IFR to Syracuse for the first leg, figuring it would be a good port of entry for clearing customs.
Not long out of Montreal, though, it looked as if Syracuse might not be our first stop after all.
Concern Number One: the engine vibration seemed to worsen. It had bothered us a little all along; now, it seemed to intensify with the rain. A safety margin of two Concerns remained.
Being in the right seat, I diverted my attention from the radios to the right wing, where ice was forming above the leading edge. Never having seen structural icing before, I was fascinated. How could icing be dangerous? It looked just like frost. Soon it thickened, and when I glanced at the temperature probe outside the windshield, I saw an even heavier coating there. Vic saw it too, so he turned on the pitot and carb heat. That ensured our instruments would be accurate and our engine would continue running properly. He got a radio clearance for descent to the MEA. That’s Minimum En-route Altitude, the lowest one can fly and still safely clear obstacles. The ice became Concern Number Two.
At this point, we knew our predetermined margin of three Concerns before landing was getting slimmer, so Vic turned the controls over to me and looked in his charts for a nearby field with an instrument approach.
Then, Concern Number Three: Smoke in the cockpit! Fire is the bane of any aircraft!
At first, it had seemed we were merely passing over a smoggy area, since the smell was not unlike that of Los Angeles in August. But after a minute or so, I was convinced that the odor was that of burning insulation. That was enough for us!
Vic talked to Air Traffic Control Center as I tried to isolate the source of the smoke. I checked the circuit-breakers and ammeter, looking for symptoms of electrical trouble. I opened the fresh-air vents and closed the heater and defroster vents.
It seemed that shutting off the heater lessened the smell of smoke, but at this point we were committed to land. When asked by Center if we were declaring an emergency, I said that we would wait and see if things got worse. For some reason, I became acutely aware of those FAA tapes recording our every word. I tried to sound professional and calm.
Watertown, New York, was the closest landing point, but it was reporting weather just above the minima in heavy rain and fog. We headed that way anyway.
On a textbook instrument approach, we began the procedure turn. We broke out of the clouds just above the MDA. That’s the minimum descent altitude, at which we’d have to discontinue the approach and go around… or land elsewhere.
Vic said he would fly a fast, flat approach, since he had no idea what our wing’s stalling speed would be with all that ice.
As we lined up on final approach, I peered through the heavy rain to pick up the field. Two crash trucks waited alongside the runway. Their yellow lights flashed at us through the mist and reflected brightly from the dark, slick wet asphalt.
Vic braked the plane gently as we landed. Taxiing in, we led a small parade of emergency trucks to the parking area.
While Vic went inside to talk to the FAA Flight Service Station people, I stayed in the airplane, my feet up in the rain and my head under the panel. I had to find the source of the smoke. Curiosity overwhelmed my distaste for the cold and wet.
I found nothing unusual under the panel, so I checked the engine compartment. There I found the source of the burning smell: Smiley, our cheerful mechanic had sealed a tear in the heater hose with silvery duct tape, which had turned crispy brown by the defroster heat. Despite the wind and rain, the smoldering smell was still very strong.
Angry at having been forced down for such a stupid reason, I was storming toward the terminal when something caught my eye. The right wing had more than an inch of ice just below the leading edge and all along the underside, hidden from our cockpit view. Even the prop was carrying ice!
My anger dissipated; my jaw dropped. No wonder the engine vibration had become worse. All that weight on the propeller increased its imbalance. It was just as well we had landed, after all!
Our Three Concern plan had kept a problem from becoming a life-threatening emergency.
At the motel, we felt energized. After about an hour of quarterbacking our actions, both of us slept very well.
The next day, we had better weather. The plane was sparkling, all the ice had melted away.
Our remaining flight back was uneventful; we felt like expert pilots now. That mysterious vibration, however, continued to plague us all the way to Santa Monica.
On arrival, we taxied up to Maintenance and clambered out of the Traveler. We looked around for that smug, smiling mechanic. We had a few questions for him!
“May I help you?” Thorwald, the younger mechanic, was all business. He never cracked a smile.
“We’re looking to have a few words with Smiley.” The adrenaline was already pumping in my chest.
Thorwald began to look over the plane, "Smiley quit last week.”
“Oh, where’d he go?” I was disappointed at several levels.
“Went back to the Air Force.” Thorwald kept looking over the front of the airplane, like he knew what he was looking for.
“I saw your Yellow Sheet on the vibration in this bird. It concerns me.”
“Good! That makes three of us!” I watched him carefully.
Thorwald took a long, stainless steel straight-edge from his giant tool box. He held it up to the prop and began shaking his head dolefully.
“Well, your vibration is due to this bent propeller. I’m amazed it made it all the way to Canada and back. You’re lucky it didn’t break off.” Thorwald’s emotion reached the point where one eyebrow raised. That was something for him!
“Yup,” Thorwald began removing the prop’s safety wires. “Smiley said working here was too hard, so he went back to the Air Force.”
I was incredulous, “But… I never saw him working at all.”
Thorwald didn’t even look up “Exactly.”
Thorwald went to work replacing that prop. I would’ve mounted it over my fireplace, if I’d had a fireplace.
Vic and I unloaded our bags, relieved our Three Concern plan had saved us. But we were a little disappointed - we missed our confrontation with Smiley.