“Engine Failure”

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“Rough-Running” (June 2008)

“You can take that pickup truck into town if you want. Here’s he keys.”, said the mechanic.

OK, I guess I need to back up.

Here’s how it all went down.

Columbia, SC:
842X was just out of maintenance, taking about a year to repair damage from the collapse of a cheaply-built hangar. I took it on a test-flight and had both turbos kick out simultaneously coming through 8,000 feet… the sound of the engine suddenly cut in half and I came forward in my belt from the deceleration. The airflow and prop changed sounds and pitch and volume as the propeller flattened it’s pitch to maintain RPM with the huge reduction of torque coming in. It was sort of a “RAHAHAHAHAHA-bluhhhhh-WHOOSH sound as the engine went from full power to partial power and the prop adjusted itself to keep up with the changing dynamics. I turned back to KCAE, doing s-turns to look behind me to see if i was leaving a trail of flame and smoke. They told me that it is a good idea to know if I am on fire when they trained me on the airplane. Apparently that would be bad. The problem, hypothetically, is that if the turbo-failure has hot exhaust gas escaping from the turbos INTO THE ENGINE COMPARTMENT, that gas (1,600 degrees. Yes. 1,600 degrees.) has a way of melting things, or catching them on fire. Things like fuel lines. My theory is that all the high-octane fuel gushing out of the ruptured fuel-lines might cool the 1600-degree flaming gas escaping from the turbos, and all would be well, but some people are skeptical of my optimism. Well, I saw no smoke, so I brought it down to KCAE in a non-paniced situation and landed… it seems that the turbos came loose when they started building up some boost coming through 8,000 feet, and were duly tightened up by the shop.

Columbia, SC:
OK, now with the plane repaired from the hangar-collapsing on it, and the turbos tightened, I did a test flight in the KCAE area, checking that everything in the plane worked. Everything ran fine. We gotta good bird! Time to do some bidness!

Columbia, SC:
I walked out to the plane around mid-day to fire up for a flight to Chicago to upgrade the X-Plane software to a new version for 2 customers that have X-Plane Eclipse simulators. They were to be upgraded to X-Plane 9.12. (Newer than what you, my esteemed reader, has. Sorry!) The first step in many flights is to put a little SD-Card into the G1000 avionics system to update the navigation data in the airplane’s computer. I dutifully put the little SD-Card first into my primary G1000 display, then into the secondary, in both cases confirming that I wanted to update the database. I did notice that the G1000’s both asked me if I wanted to update TWICE, which seemed weird, but what would I do but hit “OK”? I mean, I wanna update the database, right? Well, as soon as I did it, my airplane got dementia or something. A bunch of alerts came up on the PFD, and BOTH fuel gages quit working. Ugh. I won’t fly the plane without fuel gages… it’s illegal. I had the avionics guys come over, and they called Garmin. After a handful of phone calls, it became apparent what probably happened. Remember, X-Plane can drive REAL G1000’s. As a result of this, I have SD cards lying around the office with the programming for all sorts of airplanes on them: Beech Barons, Diamonds, Cessnas, older Columbias… each designed to program a G1000 to live in a different sort of plane. Apparently, in the year that my plane was down for maintenance, the SD card that I usually reserve for the REAL airplane got mixed up with an SD card that I use for the SIMULATOR. The card I put in the G1000 had the G1000 system software for an OLD Columbia, or maybe a Cessna, or maybe a Diamond, on it. When the G1000 in my bird saw the card, it said: “OO! I am a Cessna 182 now!” and my Columbia 400 was re-programmed with Cessna-182 brains. Perfect airplane schizophrenia. Needless to say, I was not going anywhere that day. After 1 day in the shop while the techs dutifully re-loaded the entire aircraft operating system to fix my mistake, I was ready to try again!

So in a plane with 2 of everything, we manage to lose BOTH turbos at once, BOTH flight displays at once, and BOTH fuel gages at once. My re-programming my airplane with X-Plane software probably did not help.

Columbia, SC:
Time to go to Chicago! Airplane fixed! Turbos tightened! Airplane operating system updated! Time to upgrade my customers in Chicago! Only one problem! In a BIZARRE twist for mid-sumer, ALMOST THE ENTIRE COUNTRY WAS COMPLETELY CLEAR OF THUNDERSTORMS. This is really just stunning for the summer, where typically 20% of the country is covered with clouds and thunderstorms on any given day. There was only ONE TINY BIT of the country that was socked in by massive red cells: Chicago. Where ELSE would the storms be? Oh well: The storms would be clear by the time I got there.. they always move East at 20 knots. I called the weather briefer for my briefing. “This is pretty weird!” the briefer said “I have never really seen this before.. there is a high-pressure region in New Hampshire holding the storms back, keeping them from moving east. Those storms are completely stationary. They aren’t going anywhere!” How did I just KNOW it?

Columbia, SC:
OK the Chicago trip is scrubbed… we will update those guys when we are in the area soon for Oshkosh. My mission for the day was to get to KOJC (Kansas City area) to pick up Randy and then run down to KABQ (Albequerque) to install an Eclipse Simulator at the Eclipse Flight-Trai
ning center. Those flights were perfect.

Albequerque:
Now to San Diego to upgrade a King-Air sim there. The flight was perfect. The software-upgrade for the customer (Jet Aeronautical) was perfect. San Diego. Gas-Lamp district. Check it out. Most awesome place Evar… tons of restaurants with sidewalk cafes and live music until late at night, every night. Awesome. Must-see. Gaslamp Tavern on 5th Ave and East St in the Gaslamp district. See it. Live music on weekdays. The Margaritas are excellent. My kind of place.

San Diego:
Now back to Albequerque to upgrade Eclipse again with work done in San Diego. Perfect flight.

Albequerque:
Now back to Kansas City to catch up with Randy (who had just taken airliners home as I finished some work) for 2 days of relaxation with Randy’s family. Here is where things get a bit interesting again. There was a pretty major front of thunderstorms between Albequerque and Kansas City that I would have to fly through to get where I was going. In planes without a G1000 I would say this is nearly impossible without continuous assistance from ATC to help you get around the weather. Even on-board weather radar is very, very weak: It can only show you the NEAREST blob of weather, not all the activity BEYOND it! That is NOT much good for planning a flight to avoid weather! There IS a nationwide mosaic of weather, though, and it is called NEXRAD. The NEXRAD mosaic is, quite simply, a large, highly-detailed image of every bit of precip and thunderstorm in the Country.. you see bits of it on the nightly news all the time. The G1000 shows this data overlaid over a map of the country, so you can see every bit of thunderstorm and precip not only in your area, but 100, 200, 500, or 1000 miles down the line. This makes it very, very easy to avoid thunderstorms.. just like walking across the kitchen, avoiding the read tiles on the floor… only each tile is a mile across and you are stepping at 220 miles per hour, and you can’t slow down much. I was in the air over New Mexico at 17,000 feet, in the clouds, getting shaken around a bit by turbulence, with a BIT of rain splattering against the windshield, carefully watching my path through the front, being sure that I stayed in the lighter areas of precip, and avoided the yellow and red blobs that represented the real thunderstorms. Being able to see the national weather mosaic, showing every blob of precip in the country, this was a pretty easy job… I just changed heading from time to time as needed to wind my way through the maze of yellow and red, staying in the green and black, keeping my seatbelt tight for the light-to-moderate turbulence, and clearing the occasional deviation with center-controllers as the rain smacked the windshield at 220 mph.

Approaching Texas, the engine suddenly started running very rough, and 842X started losing speed.

I switched to the engine-monitor page in the G1000 and looked at the numbers: Fuel flow, manifold pressure, rpm, oil pressure, oil temperature, all 6 exhaust gas temperatures, all 6 cylinder head temperatures, and both turbine inlet temperatures all looked normal… but the engine was stumbling along roughly as the speed bled off. Time to call this flight. DALHART, Texas, was along my flight path, about 20 miles out.. the perfect distance to loose 17,000 feet. I told center I had a sick bird, and was diverting to Dalhart. Center was so nice it is ridiculous, immediately finding me weather for Dalhart, researching the airport, telling me what runways were open and closed, and even asking me to call him when I landed like a nervous friend. The panel was shaking just a bit now from the engine vibration, and the feedback from the shaking engine was just strong enough to be similar to light choppy turbulence. I tried every combination of mixture, rpm, fuel tank selection, boost-pump selection, backup-pump selection… nothing made any difference. Then I tried the left magneto. As soon as I selected the left mags, the engine just about rolled over and died right there. The turbine inlet temperature shot up to near redline the moment I selected that magneto! The right mags alone were a bit better, but still really poor. Both mags together let 842X limp along with the engine protesting, but clearly I was NOT in a happy bird. An interesting point: I was IFR for much of this, but it really did not matter. Thanks to a few twiddles of the G1000, the autopilot was taking me direct to Dalhart, and the computer was showing me the vertical speed required to arrive at the ground that moment that I arrived at Dalhart.. a perfect descent profile. All I had to do was tell the autopilot to go to Dalhart, following the linear descent profile. Collision with the ground is a scary prospect when descending IFR in an emergency, but my plane is looking out for me there as well: The TAWS (Terrain Awareness Warning System) would shout out (verbally, by urgently saying “Terrain! Terrain! Pull up! PULL UP!”) if I got too close to the ground. As well, the map will show me terrain turning yellow as I get within 1000 feet of it, and red as I get within 100 feet. The map will even plot a little red ‘X’ on the map where it expects me to crash if I follow my current trajectory! You’re going to die right >>HERE<<. Kind of convenient!

Anyway, at SOME point during the emergency descent, I broke out of the clouds and saw the field. I made a non-standard approach and landed… the engine was not even IDLING properly for the taxi in.

I called the controllers when I landed, and they were glad I was still in one piece. So now on to the NEXT problem: WHAT NOW? Dalhart field seemed to be a little bit of desolate pavement with a few ancient, ancient, decrepit old shambles of hangars and what looked like a mobile home with the words “CAFE” and “closed” written on it. Nothing but the deserted plains of North Texas stretched out for as far as the eye could see in every direction. Storm clouds were approaching.. the same storm clouds I had just raced through and around moments before in my sleek little rabbit. Now they were slowly marching towards me, my advantage of speed now snatched away! TOTALLY tortoise-and-the-hare. A grizzled mechanic came out and told me they had hangar space available, so we wasted no time pulling 842X safe inside while the storm marched overhead. After a bit of poking around in the engine, it became clear to the mechanic that this would take some time to solve. “No taxis. No rental cars. But some hotels in town. You can take that pickup truck into town if you want. Here’s he keys.”

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