Mayday, Mayday, Mayday – When Things Go Really Wrong

“Mayday” is not a call you want to have to make, but sometimes things go wrong….

When it was time to relocate our airplanes closer to home, logistics were considerable.  One had to be transported by truck, the other needed its annual inspection before the re-positioning.
Once all the details and dates were known, a plan was made.  My husband and I would:
  • Drive to Texas
  • Pick-up a reserved rental truck
  • Load up the biplane into the truck
  • Husband would drive the truck back to Kansas and along with the local EAA folks, unload the components at its new home
  • I would remain in Texas with the car and assist with the annual on the Aircoupe
  • Once done, I would fly the Aircoupe up to Kansas, a two and one-half hour flight
  • Two pilot friends had volunteered to fly me back to Texas, so I could pick up my car and drive home
With the help of my sister and nephew, the biplane loading went like clockwork.  Once in Kansas, a dozen or so EAA folks showed up in 105 degree heat and had it unloaded and in its new home in less than 15 minutes.  Whoo Hoo!
Phase Two
The annual inspection on the coupe went well and I was ready to go in a couple of days. I made some local flights including one with a student pilot as a passenger. Preparations were made to fly north first thing  Monday morning.  Final checks and notifications completed, with wheels up at 7:30.
Over the Red River at the Texas/Oklahoma border, I circumvented some local precipitation, climbed up to 5,500 and was on course doing 112 knots over the ground.  I snapped a selfie.  Everything had gone like clock-work, until….
Mayday!
mayday…the Continental 90 engine that had been purring along, began to run rough and loose power.  Since I had just skirted around some localized rain, I pulled the carburetor heat thinking there might be some carburetor icing.  No help.  Rats. 
I pulled back power a bit, checked Foreflight for a place to land, dialed in 121.5 on the radio and 7700 in the transponder.  The engine was running REALLY rough.  This is when one’s training kicks in:  Focus and fly the plane.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Fort Worth Center, Aircoupe, eight miles west of Paul’s Valley Airport, with a rough running engine, landing Paul’s Valley.”  

There were some other short exchanges of information, including Center providing the common traffic advisory frequency for the airport.   All of my maps and flight information were bouncing around on the seat next to me and I was grateful for someone to provide the information I needed, …and for some company.
Engine temperature was still within limits and oil pressure was holding.  Once the airport was in sight, I switched to airport advisory, made my inbound call, then focused on getting to the runway safely.  I Did – Thank you Jesus!
Whew!
Once on the ground, I stopped on the runway, and shut the engine down.  I sat for a moment and resumed breathing.  Center had called the airport manager to advise he had an emergency inbound.  He met me at the airplane.  The local maintenance shop technician came and taxied the little plane to his shop.  She started right up, although running rough.
The manager took me to the terminal pilots lounge and I began the process of notification.  My first call was to my husband, who was planning to meet me at the local airport in Kansas before I headed back south.  The next to my pilot friends who had not yet departed Kansas.  I also called my mom, so she would hear the information from me directly.
Now, to go see what the maintenance shop had found.  As the IA removed the cowl, the shop workers, a couple of other pilots and I stood and speculated as to what had happened.  A spark plug wire that came loose?  A stuck valve?
As the pilot, I wanted to definitively know the issue, so it could be fixed and I could get on my way.  When the cowl came off, it was quite apparent:  The #1 cylinder had a crack next to the spark plug and three fins back the cylinder was darker than the rest.  At least I knew I would not be flying her home today.  Rats again.
Plan B – After The Mayday
My pilot friend agreed to alter the plan and pick me up in Oklahoma and fly me maydayback to Texas so I could retrieve the car.  The only change was that my plane would stay in Oklahoma for repairs.  Once my ride back to Texas arrived in Oklahoma, we went to the shop.  By then the cylinder was off the plane and laying on the bench – in pieces.  It was then I realized how close I had been to a catastrophic engine event.  Gasp!  and again gasp!
A new cylinder was located and would arrive the next day.  The shop was awesome in every way.  We agreed on the terms for repair and I left my baby in their capable hands.  I would pass by the next day with the aircraft log books and records on my drive back to Kansas.
Nothing in the schedule had changed.  This was just an unexpected extra step in the process.  Included in this step would be dealing with the coulda, woulda, shouldas while sorting out my rather shaken psyche.
Post Mayday
I was glad for a couple of pilot friends with whom to process the event out loud, which we did on the flight to Texas and over a late lunch.  Once they were on their way, I had the evening and next day to myself to continue the process.
As a retired air traffic controller I had been on the other side of the microphone in aircraft emergency situations.  As an incident and accident investigator, I had listened to and proceeded quite a few emergency events.  I was glad for the experience and training in dealing with these things.  However, being on the pilot side, required I draw on that foundation and then some.
Processing The Mayday And Moving On
I reminded myself, that in spite of what “could have been”, the facts were, the incident occurred within range of:
  • a good airport
  • with a long paved runway
  • that had a full service maintenance shop
  • that knew Aircoupes
  • staffed with really good people
  • on a calm wind day
Moreover:
  • I and the airplane were fine
  • Nothing was broken that could not be repaired
  • I would fly again

    mayday
    Aircoupe back in Kansas!

    And I did.  A few days later, the Aircoupe was ready to go and I took her up for a test.  There were a few more adjustments needed, so it was a few more days before I flew her the rest of the trip to Kansas.  It was nine days later than planned, but hey, what’s a few days in the scheme of things.

Lessons Learned
Stuff happens in this world – no revelation there.  When we are broadsided by the unplanned and unexpected, here are some suggestions to get back on track the right way:
  • Focus on facts rather than the emotions and drama that love to attach themselves to these kinds of things.  There is a piece of me that wanted to dwell on the “gasp” version of this story.  Let’s face it, we get to be the center of attention.  Let it go.  Keep the story for the right moment to share in a sane way, but leave the drama out.  It is not helpful because behind that follows Mr. Fear and he is not a friend, ever.
  • Deal with the emotion, even trauma in a healthy way.  Yes, talk about it, but don’t feed it.  Feed where you want to go, rather than what was.
  • Troubleshooting and lessons learned can be helpful, but, again do not stay in that mode.  I have picked up a few tips for my annual inspections that are not required but will be good practices for this airplane and for my peace of mind.
  • At the right time, get back on the “horse.”  It is best to not let your last ride be the one you were thrown from!

What “Mayday” type events have you had?  What did you do to move on, Or have you?  Please comment below.  

I am a former air traffic controller, pilot, Aircoupe owner, married 42 years to a great guy. We live in a 125+ year old historic Victorian, enjoy cats, vintage anything, precious friends. My passion is Giving Lost Stories A Voice – Giving Found Materials Fresh Form and Purpose!

10 thoughts on “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday – When Things Go Really Wrong

  1. I had not shared this with my daughter but now is the time. On that Monday morning that you were to fly home we were at the table where we do our devotions each morning. As my head was bowed I had th most unsettling feeling come over me about Nancy flying home. Very quickly I turned these thoughts from my mind and lifted Nancy in prayer for safety. This was around the 7:45 A M time. When later I received the call from Nancy that there had been a problem with he plane all I could say was Thank You Jeaus. Mothers tend to have a strong sense with in their being when things are not going well with their children, no matter what ttheir age. This is a God thing.

  2. Such a great reminder that we need to know the basics and do those in an emergency. The part about focusing “Focus! Fly the plane!” is an area the Lord has been speaking to me for months (hearing Ken Copeland say it, too) . You detailed how to do that, and how to not waver in the aftermath of an event.

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