Return to Field

So the rule I follow is that if maintenance has been done on the plane I make the first flight alone and I stay over the field for at least fifteen minutes. That way, if something goes wrong I can just glide back to the field.

Today I went down to Long Beach where a different shop was working on my plane. It was finished and I needed to pick it up.

I was curious if the problems I had with my shop on the Santa Monica field were endemic to the A&P (airframe and power plant) mechanic species, or if I had a run of bad luck. I know that some of it is just mechanic’s shops as small businesses. They are always going to be behind schedule and they are always going to have a hard time keeping promises for the schedules they set. Small businesses survive by the personal relationships they forge, and that means that when a guy pulls up to my usual shop in Santa Monica and he needs an oil change, even if my plane is close to being finished, and the oil change means it is going to take an extra day… it just depends on whether he’s a better customer. If he is, I’m going to be without my plane for another day.

There were too many days that I was without the plane when I hadn’t planned for it. So I was trying another shop.

They did great work. They handled all of the squawks (problems) that I had with the plane. There were a couple beyond their purvey (I want a power adapter in the luggage area, so that the boys can plug in a laptop; that requires a field approval from the FAA. They don’t do those), but that’s okay. I wanted them to find an induction leak and they looked hard, but they couldn’t find one.

The pitot static system is meant to be tested by a shop every twenty-four months. This new shop found that the testing date had gone by two months ago. Either the work was not completed or the work was not logged. Either one is bad and puts me in violation of the federal aviation regulations. It’s not a safety issue, but I work hard to make sure I toe the line. So that bothered me a little. The magnetos were not timed well, so they fixed that.

It was meant to be ready on Monday (maybe Tuesday), and instead I was collecting it at 3pm on a Friday. That was due to a part that needed to be replaced by Garmin: not the shop’s fault. Robert Stewart of US Aero was nice and picked me up at SMO in a DA40 XL and flew my friend Art and me down to LGB. My plane wasn’t quite ready, so Art and I had lunch at da Vici. After lunch we helped pull it out onto the ramp. I thanked the mechanic and we hopped in. We did a pretty thorough run-up to make sure everything on the gauges looked good, which it did.



LGB was taking off to the south. In all my visits to the airport I had never seen that. In fact, I assumed that 16 and the corresponding 34 were closed runways (I do my run-up on 32L when I am preparing to take off on 25L).

I requested a box climb over the airport to four thousand five hundred feet. (The traffic pattern around a landing strip is a rectangle. A box climb is where you follow the rectangle in a continuous climb to get to the altitude you want.) Usually I would do three landings and takeoffs at SMO to check the plane out, and then fly up around Point Dume to make sure everything looked good. LGB was too busy for me to fly half an hour of landings: it would turn into an hour and a half. Instead, I would climb up high enough that if something went wrong on the way home I would always be within gliding distance of an airport.



(There are two ways to fly over LAX. One is the mini-route, which requires clearance from air traffic control and an assigned squawk code. The other way is the Special Flight Rules Corridor. You travel southbound through it at three thousand five hundred, and northbound at four thousand five hundred. Most of the terrain is nearly sea level and the plane glides 1.7 nautical miles for every thousand feet of altitude. So I could glide more than seven and a half miles if my engine suddenly stopped after I departed LGB. If you look at our route on this chart we start at the blue pointer and fly nineteen miles to the yellow pointer. Then entire way we are within seven and a half miles (usually less) of a landing field. That doesn’t count all of the open fields we go over and the exciting prospect of landing on the beach or on the highway. Yes, this is the sort of careful, thorough planning that I do as a pilot in order to understand and mitigate the risks of a ten minute flight. (It was even better than the line on the chart because first we flew toward Torrance (TOA), so we were REALLY within gliding distance of LGB, TOA, HHR, LAX and SMO the whole time.))

The plane flew beautifully off the field, although it was a little disorienting to be heading up into the sky at ninety degrees to where I usually do. When we were doing the initial engine start a Cessna took off over us on the ramp and I remarked to Art, “I don’t know where he came from, he must have taken off on a taxiway.” Ten minutes later I was flying over the same ramp looking down to my parking spot.

We did our box climb. It took two and a half circuits through the traffic pattern climbing at seven hundred feet a minute or so. All the gauges looked good. I liked having a fuel pressure indicator. As soon as I had enough altitude to make a one hundred eighty degree return to the takeoff runway I had turned off the fuel boost pump and adjusted the RPMs to 2500. I left the throttle wide open and we climbed at eighty knots.

High RPMs

High RPMs

Just as we leveled off at four thousand five hundred the tachometer popped up into the redline area and the numbers flashed with a red background. That was odd. Then it did it again. Occasionally on takeoff (maximum RPMs, maximum power) you can get it to creep into the very bottom of the redline for an instant, but that’s not what this was.

I pulled the propeller back to 2300rpm, which I use for cruise, the tachometer still popped up a few times. I closed the throttle so that there was only sixteen inches of manifold pressure. I had turned us toward Torrance airport and the Long Beach tower controller had already released me from his airspace (“Niner seven one Romeo Delta, frequency change approved”). I watched the RPM indicator bounce a few more times into the red. The engine sounded fine: strong, steady, the right tone.

I made up my mind to return to the field, and checked that with Art. He thought it was a fine idea. I called the tower back, “Long Beach Tower, One Romeo Delta returning to field, we seem to have a little engine trouble.”

“One Romeo Delta, roger, cleared to land on any runway you need, do you want us to roll any equipment?” Standard procedure, they are checking to see if I want a fire truck down there, or one of the cool ones that can foam the runway.

“Negative, we’ll land back on one six right and park back at West Coast. Thanks.”

So now I was returning to the field with a questionable engine indicator. I mean, I didn’t think anything was wrong with the engine, Art (who has built cars from scratch with his bare hands) didn’t think there was anything wrong with the engine, but we definitely had an indicator that was out of the green arc. A lot of accident reports start with something like this, and with a pilot who doesn’t take it seriously enough. It was hard to know how seriously to take it, since the plane was still flying fine. Also, a lot of accidents start with one bad indicator and in their panic a lot of pilots start doing a series of stupid things that end with them on the ground with a bent airplane.

I focused. I decided to be high on short final. I would make SURE I could make the runway before I took out the power. I didn’t put in the last set of flaps, but maybe I should have. I landed a little fast and bounced a little. I haven’t done that in a while.

We taxied to the ramp, shut down, and went inside to talk to the mechanic. He was a little puzzled, but said that if the engine wasn’t surging then it was an indicator problem, a loose wire on a magneto, rather than a mechanical problem with the engine. Art concurred. I scratched my head and asked the A&P guy if he thought it was safe to fly home. It was the end of the day, so there was no way he could chase this problem in his shop in time for us to get home. We were looking at calling a taxi to take us twenty-five miles through Friday evening rush hour. He said it was not an engine issue, just a data probe issue. Art and I walked out to the plane and I thought it over. I decided I would continue with the original plan and if the mechanic was wrong, I would be within gliding distance of a field the entire ride home.

It was an uneventful flight.

I’ll bring the plane back down on Monday. On the way up the tachometer settled down for five minutes at a time, but the rest of the ride it would bounce ever few seconds into the redline. I called the mechanic on arrival, so he knew we made it safely, and he said he had called Garmin (they make the fancy computer screen stuff in the plane) and was told that he just needed to reload the software update in the engine monitoring module. That seems amazing to me, that it could be a software issue, but I admit that the technology of the plane has advanced beyond my ability to understand it en toto.

It was good practice to make the decision and return to the field, though. I often think about another DA40 pilot who wrote about taking off from Block Island and seeing one cylinder with a low temperature and returning to the field. It turned out to be a bad plug and I always think about it and wonder if I would have the good sense to turn back. Apparently I do.

Update on Monday: Art and I flew the plane back down. The tachometer stayed normal for the first ten minutes and then went back to being crazy. The flight was uneventful. We had lunch (City Mex, similar to Baja Fresh) with Robert Stewart (nice enough to drive us to lunch) and when we returned the plane was ready to go. It flew great on the way home and there were no further problems.

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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