A routine 100-hour inspection on "The Yellow Max", my 1976 Cessna 150 revealed that the engine was at TBO, and needed to be either overhauled or replaced. After several calls, a rebuilt engine had been located and scheduled for installation at Wyndam, Connecticut. As a private pilot with an experience of 250 hours I was eager to make the ferry flight across Long Island Sound to the FAA repair shop in Wyndam.
It was January 7, 1988, an ill-fated day. Due to a prolonged cold spell, it took 35 minutes of pre-heating and hand-cranking to get the engine started. But once that "tired" engine (with just over 1800 hours on the tach) came to life, it hummed as usual. The preliminaries of that 100-hour inspection forewarned possible low compression in one of the four cylinders. Therefore, I listened with a supercritical ear, ear to the sounds of the engine during the taxiing and before takeoff checks.
Since I would be leaving the Yellow Max in Wyndam for several days, I arranged for a chase plane to follow me, and to take me back home. It was a four-seater Cherokee with a faster cruising speed than my 150. Therefore, my friends, student pilot Norman Ward and his instructor, Jeff Krul, would leave Islip 30 minutes after my take off on a direct course diagonally across the Sound, Our chief pilot had also, recommended that my flight should have two legs, rather than a direct line. Crossing the Long Island Sound at the most direct route, then once over land direct to Wyndam to avoid prolonged over-water flight.
The takeoff and climb to 9,500 feet was uneventful. First Islip Tower and then New York Approach monitored my progress. Crossing the Sound was an exhilarating experience for the sky was crystal clear and the contrast of the cold, blue water against the white, snow-covered shoreline was a dazzling spectacle, the kind of sight that reinforces one's love for flying a small plane. All was right with the world at that moment. I did notice, however, that a standard cruise power setting of 2,300 RPM required full throttle, which could to be a sign of a compression problem. As I reached the Connecticut shoreline, New York Approach handed me off to Boston Center as I turned northeast on course to Wyndam.
Communications were clear and checkpoints were right on target. With the Connecticut River dead ahead, I began looking around for the chase plane. It was nowhere in sight. I considered an attempt to raise them by radio, but that's when it happened! The engine coughed. The call to the Cherokee Warrior would have to wait.
Suddenly, things were not quite right with the world. My eyes dropped to the instrument panel and my heart sank into my toes as the engine coughed again. I watched the RPM dropping , the hands on the altimeter turning counter clockwise, the vertical velocity indicator and the attitude indicator dipping below level, and the airspeed indicator registering loss of forward thrust. "My God, I'm going down! Check the mixture. It's rich, Check the carburetor heat. It's in. Pull it out. Nothing! Check the Magnetos, Both switches on. Grab the mike."
In a calm voice, I advised Boston Center of an "engine problem", and asked for assistance into the nearest airfield. The advice from Boston Control was reassuring: there indeed was an airport nearby. "Maintain your altitude Seven-Three Uniform." This was one instruction that I could not follow with a failed engine. Fortunately I was at 9500 feet.
The engine continued to cough and surge. Each time it coughed I lost altitude and each time it surged I attempted to regain the lost altitude. It was a losing battle! However, the airport was now in sight and I calculated that I could cough and surge my way in without a problem. I was looking at "Goodspeed", an airfield just on the other side of the Connecticut River. But suddenly the encouraging intermittent surging deteriorated to a pathetic idling and coughing as the rate of descent increased. I immediately abandoned any plans to cross the river. With the help of Boston Center, I selected and radioed into the nearby Chester airport for an immediate landing clearance.
I was reasonably lined up with the runway when my worst fear was realized, the prop stopped dead! Suddenly there was no sound other than the sound of the slipstream. In my anxiety, I had failed to allow for time for adequate descent. At 1,000 feet MSL, with the engine barely idling and the airport almost directly 600 feet below, I realized I'd have to execute a rapidly descending 360 degree turn.
Maybe it was time to get scared. I had to do something , my instructor's voice echoed in the silence, "Stay close to the runway in an emergency situation". Since I had not declared an emergency earlier, It was time to let people on the ground know about my situation. I grabbed the microphone to advise whoever was listening that I had experienced a total engine failure. I was too high to land, should I make a right steep 360 degrees descending turn and attempt a dead stick landing?. At that crucial moment I didn't even now if that was the correct terminology but I didn't really much care.
With my left hand on the ignition key attempting to restart on the way down, the engine only fluttered and sputtered a few times. I somehow had the presence of mind to appreciate the incredible silence save for the sound of the slipstream as I banked hard to my right, and descended. I remembered to turn the key off prior to the touch down to minimize the chance of fire.
Several people from Chester Operation's Office cheered as I rolled to a stop. They pushed the Yellow Max to the hanger area congratulating my successful landing. A mechanic attempted to restart the engine after I left the cockpit, but it wouldn't catch. He checked the belly and wings fuel drains for water or ice than removed the engine cowling looking for a possible cause. All four cylinders were getting a spark, so he continued his trouble-shooting routines.
Meanwhile, the operations personnel, had contacted Boston Center to advise them of my safe landing, and to track down my chase plane. Norman and Jeff had been monitoring my transmissions all along, agonizing over my predicament from the beginning, They immediately had changed course to rendezvous with me once my emergency field had been identified.
By the time their Cherokee entered the traffic pattern at Chester, the engine in the Yellow Max had come back to life! Like the temperamental car that never misfires in the mechanic's garage. the Yellow Max was purring like a kitten when my friends deplaned. My only concern during the ordeal in the sky had been to land safely.
Now, with the new engine waiting only 25 miles away, I faced the question of what to do next. I was on terra firma with the plane both safe and sound.
It appeared that the old engine was operating flawlessly now. What had gone wrong? What was the problem? Would it happen again? Could I, should I fly the Yellow Max to Wyndam today or at any other day? Norm ventured his opinion, "Don't go! It's not worth the risk." But after a consultation with the mechanic and a successful test run-up, I decided to go for it. I climbed on board and once again the engine run-up was flawless. But now, the DG began spinning rather than reflecting my runway heading. I decided that the setting knob was stuck, and I'd right it once aloft. The Yellow Max barreled down the runway at full throttle. I waited as long as possible before allowing the plane to lift off, in case the engine started to falter during the ground run. I remember thinking, as I climbed out, that if the engine fails I deserve it for being so cocky.
The problem with the DG setting knob turned out to be a bigger problem than I initially anticipated. The DG kept spinning, no matter what I did, and without it my navigation capabilities were somewhat impaired. Fortunately, Jeff and Norm in the chase plane were now airborne. I advised them of my newest problem. My attempts to arrest the spinning of DG by re-engaging the set-knob were to no avail. I gratefully let them lead the way into Wyndam and was spared the need to navigate by compass alone. We left the Yellow Max in the capable hands of the A&P mechanic at Wyndam. Norm flew us back to Islip, and I relished my role as a passive passenger in the back seat, collapsed, relaxed; and not saying a word.
The cause for the engine failure remained unknown. Carburetor icing was ruled out as a reason, because the ambient temperature was substantially below freezing and the humidity was very low. A mechanical failure of the engine was also ruled out. A combination of extreme cold air and possible trapped humidity in the DG could be a reason for the set-knob to get jammed by ice.
This learning experience is one I'll never forget. In retrospect, believe it or not, I'm glad it happened because it enhanced my experience and increased my confidence in my flying skills. I'm forever grateful to the club's chief pilot for who recommended adding the safety margin of altitude. I'm especially thankful to the aviation professionals who rallied to my assistance. Where else can we find such camaraderie. It' a reassuring to find this marvelous esprit de corps alive and well in the wonderful world of general aviation.
Some airplane are not built to fly. On January 30, 1992 ,the Yellow Max, Cessna 7673U,
lost power while flying on a live traffic broadcast mission. The airplane was at 1100 feet
when the engine failed. The pilot managed to make a successful emergency landing at a Long
Island school football field. After a very short ground roll the Yellow Max was stopped by
the school fence.
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