Saturday, August 22 2009
KMMU – KCAK – KCMI – KSPI
(Part of the lost trip report.)
Our departure out of Morristown was our first return-to-field event as a family. (I had done this once with Art in the plane taking off out of Long Beach after service.) The truth is, I expected the plane to misbehave a little since it had been sitting for a week. Well, that and I always expect the engine to quit at any moment. That’s what I am planning for.
We packed it all up, the boys climbed in and turned on their Kindles. Nell settled in with her magazine. We taxied out to the the run-up area and I ran the engine up to 2,000rpm and checked each side of the ignition. It was all fine. We had an instrument clearance out of the airport because there was a thin layer of clouds over it (a few holes here and there up to blue sky). The clearance was rather simple: fly straight ahead climbing until you are above the clouds. The airspace around New York City is incredibly busy (three international airports: JFK, Newark and LaGuardia), so we had to wait on the ground for a little while.
We rolled out onto the centerline, I pushed the throttle forward and we finally returned to the sky. The clouds had a few more holes in them and the truth is that we just wandered up into the blue. As always, after take off I checked the engine instruments. One of the cylinders was exhausting gas a couple hundred degrees hotter than the others. That was bothersome. I tried pulling the mixture way back to really heat up the gases, in case I could burn off some gunk that was messing up the ignition. It didn’t work.
High exhaust gas temperatures could mean a lot of things. And it was possible that after climbing to altitude and leaning the cylinder way back the condition could be cleared. Note that in a less advanced aircraft like the one I trained in we wouldn’t even have the information that one of the cylinders was exhausting gas that was a few hundred degrees hotter than the others.
I spun through all the possible scenarios in my head and I didn’t really like any of them. The entire family was in the plane and if this was a hint that the engine was going south on us, I didn’t want to make an emergency landing in some farmer’s field with all four of us and our luggage on board. Besides, there weren’t that many farmer’s fields below us, most of it was housing developments.
There are a lot of regulations governing flying, even the littlest planes. There are additional regulations on top of those if you are flying under Instrument Flight Rules, which we were. Pilots spend a lot of their time worrying about regulations, how they are interpreted, how they are enforced, and whether they might be in violation of any of them inadvertently. Just for a simple flight you are embarking on a tour of hundreds of pages of federal legalese in the FAAR (Federal Aviation Administration Regulations) book. A lot of regulations that all disappear the moment I say, “Niner seven one romeo delta is declaring an emergency, we have an engine anomaly and need to return to field.”
The instant you declare an emergency all bets are off and you can do acrobatics, land on a road, or fly through a cloud without a clearance. As long as it is all in service of the safety of your flight, there are no regulations until everything is okay again.
I was already making a descending left turn back toward MMW and pulling some of the power back. I was watching the engine gauges carefully. (Most engine trouble in piston engines is triggered by a power change, so I am careful about when I make those changes.) The controller asked, “Do you need equipment?” That’s a polite way of asking if I want the airport’s fire trucks and paramedics to roll out to the landing strip to hose us down or cart us off to the nearest hospital as needed. I glanced at the altimeter, airspeed and the moving map. Everything looked very good, even if the engine stopped now. “Negative, no equipment necessary, we have a high exhaust temperature on one cylinder and can probably clear it once we’re on the ground.”
Technically, we are still under an Instrument Flight Plan, we were just deviating from it. And, I believe, the airport was still technically IFR (the minimums for Visual Flight Rules were not met by the weather conditions: there was less than three miles visibility or the clouds were lower than a thousand feet). So I needed to fly an instrument approach back into the airport.
I wasn’t really thinking about that. I had a fancy moving map, I could see where I was in relation to the runway I was going to land on, and I had just flown up through a hole in the thin layer of clouds, so I knew I could fly back down through one. I was watching the ground flit in and out of view through the cloud layer that was broken and I was finding my way back to the start of the runway.
There are a couple things controllers are not allowed to “offer” or suggest to pilots. They tend to be higher risk procedures. The first that we learn about is the Special VFR clearance for take off and landing when the field is technically below basic VFR minimums, but not yet quite IFR. Student pilots cannot accept a special VFR clearance, but regular pilots, even without an instrument rating, can. But you have to know to ask for it. As you are arriving at the airport, the tower controller will say, “The field is below basic VFR minimums, what are your intentions?” You have to know to say, “I am requesting a special VFR clearance to land.” Some people think accepting a special VFR clearance is too risky and won’t do it.
The other procedure they can clear you for, but can’t suggest, is a contact approach. That’s where you have visual “contact” with the environs around the airport at your destination, but you can’t actually see the airport. If you know the airport well enough (or you have a fancy moving map and a GPS to lead you there), this is a fine way to find the runway, but it’s certainly higher risk than an ILS or WAAS approach. It assumes that neither of those are available for the runway you are trying to use, and that you can’t see the airport directly to get to it.
The controller asked me a couple times, “Do you have contact with the ground?” I see the ground often enough that I am using that as a reference to get back to the airport, but since I am also monitoring the engine instruments, letting Nell know what is going on, and getting my orientation to the runway figured out, it doesn’t sink in what he’s asking. I finally say that I have positive contact with the ground and the airport is in sight, in and out of the clouds. He says, “You are cleared for the contact approach, switch to tower.”
So the tower asked if I want equipment. If the runway were shorter, or if the engine were producing less than full power, I wouldn’t mind seeing the fire truck out there, but I was pretty sure this is just a fouled plug so I said that we’d be okay without the equipment, we just needed to get back on the ground.
Internal combustion engines mix fuel and air in a mist and then ignite the mixture. Because the technology in the plane’s engine is (primarily) from the 1940’s, there is lead in the fuel to keep the engine running smoothly. Not a lot of lead, not an environmentally significant amount, but some. When the plane is on the ground, engine idling, the temperatures in the cylinders are low. Too low to always burn the lead deposits off of the walls of the cylinder or the electrodes of the spark plug. When deposits build up on the spark plug it stops producing as big a spark. The ignition of the gas and air mixture lags a little, so some of the conflagration escapes the cylinder with the exhaust gases, showing up as an increased exhaust-gas temperature (EGT).
I know, fascinating.
So once I lined up for the runway, landed, and taxied to the run up area (for the second time that morning), I ran the engine at a little higher throttle setting and slowly pulled the mixture lever, letting less and less fuel into the cylinders. The result is a mixture that burns hotter and hotter, eventually burning the lead deposit off the fouled plug. Once I did that, I ran it for a little to check the EGTs, and they were all just about the same. While I was fiddling with the throttle and mixture levers and peering at the engine gauges Nell said, “What do you think these guys want?” I looked up and the huge yellow fire truck assigned to the field has rolled up next to us.
Reluctantly, I shut down and talked to the fire chief. He has forms to fill out every time there is an emergency landing, so he has to talk to the pilot. I explained the fouled plug and the extreme caution since the entire family was in the plane. He seemed satisfied. During our time on the ground the clouds had opened a lot more and we didn’t need to file for an instrument departure. That was good, since I think the wait for our instrument release was part of the problem. Twenty minutes after our first take off, we were climbing back up into the blue, steering around the occasional cloud. And soon the green hills of western New Jersey were sliding beneath us.
It is difficult to fly across the country and not hit the same places all the time. We made an effort to NOT stop in Pittsburgh, where I had already been twice. Instead, we pushed a little further west (and a little north) and made it to Akron, Ohio. It felt like we had made up for the delay on departure by getting a little closer to the Pacific.
We ate lunch at a themed restaurant on the field. It was like Squadron 94, where I have dined in Van Nuys, but it wasn’t part of the chain. I just wanted something a little better than McDonalds, and they delivered. The FBO found the tires missing a few pounds of air and it was a relief to have them back to the proper pressure. We considered our meal a heavy brunch and, sated, headed back into the sky to continue west.
One of our best stops on a previous trip was accidental. It was our diversion to Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, where the University of Illinois has a campus. Last time we were a little aimless and killing time. This time we knew what we wanted and had a fantastic afternoon.
We went to the stir fry place for an early dinner. We checked out the college store for any good t-shirts. And we strolled the campus (which has the earliest experimental field ever planted). There’s some good architecture. The weather was perfect. It seemed that the freshman were just arriving for orientation. Rudy strolled past a few of the tables and I thought about how in five or six years he’ll really be on a campus for orientation.
There was a lot of urban-scale sculpture on the campus and some interesting architecture along with the older buildings. I enjoy campus planning and architecture, even though I didn’t enjoy my time on a campus. And as we strolled between the campus and an expansive graveyard, and then along the edge of a large cornfield, I thought about how this was the sort of place we would never get to unless we traversed the country in our little plane.
We wandered back to our “crew car,” drove back to the airport and I planned our last flight. We lifted off into the sun setting over the cornfields of Illinois.
By pushing on, we were sure that we could make it home with only two more days of flying, neither of them terribly difficult. I was a little warm (sweaty) climbing back into the plane, and by the end of the flight I was certainly ready for a hotel bed. It was an extremely peaceful flight, skimming over the flat, lush land with the light going grey and the sky changing color. We landed at an FBO that Bob and had used two summers before. They were just as helpful this time and gave us a (beat up) crew car to keep over night (unheard of). It helps to arrive with cute little boys in tow. Nell found us a great hotel downtown and we grumbled our way there in our Ford Escort circa 1987. The hotel was hip, which was a little odd since we were in what seemed like a downtrodden section of town. But it was a 1950s modern hotel that had been renovated to retro-hip in the past three years or so. I didn’t understand how great Nell’s pick was until the next morning.