Engine Out

Here’s the thing about emergency landings. I don’t expect to have to do one, but I’ve trained to do one, I’ve practice them a number of times, and my training keeps me focused on one question while I am flying: If the engine stops now, where do I put down the plane? A lot of the time that’s an easy answer. Almost all the way to Las Vegas and back I am within gliding distance of a real airport. (Sometimes a private field, sometimes a restricted defense contractor’s field, but there’s always a strip of tarmac down there to put the plane down on.) For a couple short stretches I would have to find a road through the desert, but I have read a few accounts of those landings and they sound possible, like beach landings. Not something I want to try, but something I am confident I am capable of surviving.

The flight up and back to Seattle was the longest time I had been in the plane. It helped boost my confidence in the engine. I know, statistically, the engine won’t fail. It’s not going to throw a rod, suffer a cracked piston head, lose a gasket or crack a bearing. New engines don’t fail. It is poorly run, poorly maintained engines which fail, or engines with a lot of hours on them. My engine won’t fail in the next three years, at least not statistically. Still, I am a little uncomfortable with this four cylinder behemoth, because I am too involved in its management when we are aloft. I decide the throttle setting (manifold pressure), the number of revolutions per minute that it will turn, and the mixture of fuel to air that the injectors receive for delivery to the cylinders.

Because I am responsible for these settings, I am also responsible for reading the gauges that tell me how the engine is performing. Is the propeller turning fast enough for the manifold pressure? Has the altitude started to affect the reading of the manifold pressure regardless of the throttle setting I have selected? What is the temperature of each of the four cylinder heads? What is the temperature of the gases exiting each of the four cylinders? What is the oil pressure, oil temperature, amps and volts?

The gauges are all digital, which doesn’t help. The Pilot’s Operation Handbook (POH) says that for the engine run up I should give the engine enough throttle to turn two thousand revolutions per minute. I wiggle and jiggle it, knowing that 1990 and 2010 would both be fine, but being bothered by it being a little off. And while I am flying I know that fourteen hundred on the exhaust gas temperature (EGT) is fine, but when it starts to creep past 1375 I wonder… should I keep it a little lower? What do those twenty-five degrees represent? Is a slightly cooler engine a safer engine for an extra week of flying?

The autopilot does a lot of the flying, especially on the longer trips. I set the altitude I want to climb to, and the G1000 has a navigation course laid out. The autopilot steers the plane to follow the pink line and pitches the plane to get the desired climb rate. It isn’t management free (I often have to admit the autopilot can’t maintain seven hundred feet a minute and drop it back to five hundred feet a minute), but for the most part my attention is often on the engine (between my scans of the sky outside and tourist glances at the ground below).

If you pay close enough attention to anything, it will start to sound funny. Probably look funny, too, although I can’t open the cowling and look at my engine before each flight. (I was able to open the top half of the cowling on the Cherokee I trained in and I obsessively wiggled the magnetos each time because I read an accident story where the engine failure was the magneto snapping off its mount and getting tangled in the belts.) So as I fly I am sure that I can hear the engine coughing, or pre-coughing, sputtering a little (sort of pre-sputtering). Adam and Bob both say that I am crazy, that they can’t hear ANY of these things when they are in the plane with me, so I have started to accept that there is just something I hear that isn’t very meaningful.

As I have done more of these long flights I have come to realize that the engine is a little rougher sounding at the start, and after half an hour or so it starts to smooth out. It’s almost certainly warming up. We are no longer used to noticing that in our automobile engines because the computers that control the throttle, mixture, spark timing and cooling of our car’s engine are so good at keeping it smooth at all stages (cold start, low idle, hot day on the highway) that it sounds pretty much the same.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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