Do You Smell Smoke, Part 1

engine is out, but don't worry dear.

engine is out, but don't worry dear.

CAVU - Clear and visibility unlimited at 7,500 feet heading south to Key West with a plan to stop one night in New Port Richie to visit my brother Mike and  his wife Patty.

It was Friday afternoon, October 25, 2002.  

The trip had been planned for a couple of weeks, so my wife, Jeanne was packed and ready to go when I got home from work.  I came home early so we were sure to arrive at Tampa Executive airport before dark. 

It took about an hour to drive from our home north of Atlanta to our plane, hangared in Rome, Georgia.  Hangars are as scarce as hen’s teeth in the Atlanta area, which is why we ended up in Rome…64 miles from our house.

Our airplane is a beautifully restored ‘J Model’ Bonanza and it was fueled and ready to go.  After a thorough preflight we took off and climbed to 7,500 feet for a VFR flight to Tampa.

It was a beautiful, smooth flight. A good time for Jeanne to recline her seat and enjoy a peaceful nap.

We had been droning along for a little more than and hour when I thought I smelled smoke.  I surveyed the ground to see if we had flown through smoke rising from the ground.  I didn’t see anything on the ground that could account for the smoke smell, so I asked Jeanne, “Do you smell smoke?”

Just as I did I noticed the needle moving on the oil pressure gauge.  We were losing oil pressure.  


My first thought was the engine damage that would occur running the engine without oil and since this rebuilt engine had cost a little more than $25,000 less than a year before I wanted to avoid that if possible.  I reduced the throttle to idle which triggered the gear-up warning horn, which I later learned added to Jeanne's fear. I  feathered the prop and pulled the mixture control out to eliminate the fuel flow. Even though the engine continued to spin, I thought much less damage would occur than if I allowed it to continue to run.

It took only a few seconds to realize we were less than five miles from the Thomasville, Georgia airport (TVI) so making the field without power would be no problem.

I turned toward the airport and trimmed the aircraft for the best power-off glide speed.  Next, I looked up Thomasville’s radio frequency, which was their unicom frequency since it’s an uncontrolled airport.  I broadcast in-the-blind our position relative to the airport, our engine-out condition and our intention to land.  

(After landing I later learned no one had heard my announcement because I had misread the frequency.)

Now, I had nothing to do except fly the airplane.  The aircraft was trimmed for the best power-off glide speed and we were descending slowly through 6,700 feet.

I knew we had the airport made so I lowered the landing gear which stopped the alarm, but too late to comfort Jeanne. She later told me the loud alarm was terrifying because she didn't know what it meant.  Only that we had an emergency.  I must have tuned it out because I don’t remember it.  

With the additional drag from our landing gear, our descent increased but not enough.  I was focused on saving the engine, so I wanted to get it stopped...quickly. I began an aggressive side-slip to accelerate the descent without increasing our speed. That worked. 

We landed on Runway 4 and our momentum allowed us to clear the runway and come to a stop a couple hundred feet down a taxiway.

As we rolled to a stop, Jeanne started crying which surprised me.  Then I realized I had failed to reassure her during the descent.  I had known everything was fine, but I had not told her.  She only knew we had an emergency.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought to let her know. 

The FBO’s linemen towed us to the maintenance shop, which was still open…thankfully. After washing the oil off the engine and side of the airplane they filled it with oil and I started the engine to trace the source of the leak.

It took 5 seconds to determine an external oil line had ruptured. Typically, there are no external oil lines but the previous owner had installed an external oil filter similar to those on automobiles.  It was mounted on the firewall behind the engine so it required a line to flow oil from the engine to the filter and another to return the oil to the engine.  The lines had been ]replaced during engine overhaul a few months before and should not have ruptured.  They were designed for oil under high pressure and the Bonanza’s engine pressure was only about 80 psi.  We guessed it was a rare defect in the line. Fortunately, the shop had enough of this kind of line to replace the ruptured link, but not enough to replace the return line.

That would prove to be fateful.

The repair and cleanup was completed in two or three hours and we were ready to proceed to our first stop in Tampa. Well, that’s not completely true.  I was ready, but Jeanne had decided she wasn’t getting back in that airplane. It took my best sales job to convince her that it was safe.  I told her I had flown thousands of hours since I was 16 and my Dad even more in his 60 years of flying and nothing like this had ever happened to either of us; so, it was a million in one occurrence and would never happen again.

Reluctantly, she finally agreed and climbed aboard and although we arrived at Tampa Bay Executive Airport (now closed) after dark, it was a pleasant and uneventful flight.

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