A few days before US Airways Flight 1549 grabbed headlines and the nation’s attention when Captain Chesley Sullenberger masterfully landed the crippled Airbus A320, I too had a mechanical failure in my aircraft.  Although hardly as newsworthy as what that flight crew had to go through, I did have to put my flight training to the test to deal with this operational interruption.

I was invited to meet some friends in Brunswick, Georgia, a quick one-hour flight up the coast from St. Augustine, Florida, for a quick bite to eat.  (In the aviation community, this is known as, “Going for the $100 hamburger,” due to the associated fuel cost.  Due to increased gas prices, the expense is usually much more, but then again, Motel 6 and Super 8 haven’t updated their names to accommodate inflation, either.)

I don’t own an aircraft…yet, so I rented a two-seat, 125 horsepower Cessna 152 from a nearby flight school.  While getting the flight bag, which contains the aircraft logs, checklists and keys, I noted that this would be the first flight since some preventative maintenance was performed.  Although this is usually a good thing (the aircraft given a recent clean bill of health), it is best to approach the next flight with caution, much like someone would when their car is returned after being serviced.

The external pre-fight inspection showed no adverse items, and the “run-up” (systems check just prior to take-off) also confirmed all systems were operating properly…at that time.  The traffic pattern was busy that day, so after confirming all pre-flight checklists have been completed, I advised the control tower that I was ready for immediate departure (I would be able to work my take-off into the busy stream of incoming traffic, without imposing any unneccessary delays).

While I was flying along the coastline to the north, I climbed to 3,000 feet.  This allows flight over Mayport Naval Air Station’s controlled airspace, and also offers excellent visibility for navigation (and scenery) during this short flight, as well as provide for an “out” should any mechanical issues occur.  Since you can’t simply “pull over” like you can with a car, it’s good to know that every thousand feet of altitude gives you a good one- to two-miles of gliding distance.

I hadn’t quite reached NAS Mayport when the engine started running rough.  Given the conditions, it is possible, though unlikely, that ice had formed in the carburetor.  Fortunately, there’s a system to apply heated air into the carburetor to correct that problem.  As I did so, the engine performance did not improve.

There are other troubleshooting steps one takes in a situation like this, but I first turned the aircraft back towards St. Augustine, just in case the rough running engine decided to stop altogether, and advised the control tower of the situation.  I maintained my altitude for as long as possible and kept watch for possible landing sites while I continued to determine the source of the issue.

(As a side note, in response to the self-proclaimed “experts” out there who chastised the flight crew for not returning to La Guardia or trying to stretch the glide to Teterboro, it’s sad that hobbyists try to contradict the tens of thousands of flight hours’ worth of knowledge, skill, professionalism.  No doubt both airports were considered by the flight crew, and the Hudson River was determined to give the best probability of success.  Although “the book” may show numbers that suggest the aircraft could possibly have made one of the landing sites, performance numbers are derived from specific test scenarios, and this situation was hardly in a controlled, test environment.  It is best not to speculate on any situation like this, until a full investigation has been completed.)

The engine on my Cessna 152 began running more smoothly, albeit at a lower power output, when I disabled one of the aircraft’s two magnetos:  these provide the electric pulse to the engine’s spark plugs.  Since this is a vital component, there are two, so the redundancy increases the probability of arriving at the airport safely.  (Had the aircaft been equipped with only one magneto, a picture of the airplane and me on the stadium golf course in Sawgrass surely would have been on the front page of the Florida Times-Union!)

Fortunately, during my return to the airport, I had two reliable “stand-bys” below:  the hard-packed sandy beach and Highway A1A.  Of course, neither are a sure thing, as both have pedestrian or automotive traffic, and power lines over the highway are difficult to discern at altitude.

The control tower continued to give me traffic updates and check on my progress.  They made sure the primary runway was available to me, and that I had priority to land once I arrived back at St. Augustine.  I advised them I would maintain my altitude until very close.  There are several techniques of losing altitude quickly and safely; I didn’t want to sacrifice that valuable resource if I didn’t have to.

Once I was assured of a safe landing, I began a steep descent while maintaining a typical traffic pattern.  Lots of things happen during a normal approach — I made sure I did not miss a thing during my scan of the engine instruments or possible traffic conflicts in the sky.  Although I was cleared to land, I still double-checked to make sure my landing path was clear.

Because of the excess altitude, I did let my airspeed get a little bit higher than it should be, which makes the landing and rollout a bit long.  Not a big deal for an aircraft that weighs only 1,500 pounds including fuel and its sole occupant, but I am sure the proper airspeed was more closely adhered to by the US Airways captain and first officer while on final approach to the Hudson River.

My flight terminated without further incident.  The aircraft and its crew are fine, and after taking a few minutes to perform a brief self-analysis of the flight, I requested “the bag” for another aircraft from the flight school’s fleet, and launched back into the sky.

Items that prevented this urgent situation from becoming an emergency:

  • I was familiar with the aircraft and its systems.
  • I was aware that the aircraft was recently serviced.
  • I consistently perform a thorough preflight inspection.
  • I regularly use checklists whenever possible.
  • I perform normal crew and passenger briefings aloud, even though I was the only person on board.
  • I constantly ask myself “what if” during flight, and keep an eye out for potential landing sites.
  • I maintained a safe altitude, which provided more options should the situation have deteriorated.
  • I turned towards the nearest landing site immediately.
  • I maintained an organized cockpit.  Everything was in its place, and checklists were readily available.
  • I communicated with the control tower.  They were a resource on the ground that was available to assist, and more importantly, would be able to contact emergency services immediately had they lost contact.
  • I made sure I got “the big picture,” that I was fully aware of what was happening, the urgency of the matter, and how best to resolve it.
  • Most importantly, I remained calm, so I could focus on the matter at hand.

Items that were a learning experience for me, or areas for improvement:

  • While attending to the initial issue, I focused more on the issue than where I was at the time and descended a couple hundred feet.  Had I been at a lower original altitude, in mountainous terrain or in “IMC” (the clouds), that loss of altitude could have been more detrimental.
  • I got a little fast on final approach due to the excess altitude.  In different circumstances, I could have over-shot the runway, or forced to “go around” with the reduced performance of an engine running on just one magneto.

Another thing I did which I feel was a good decision was to get back into the air as soon as possible.  I believe that, no matter what you do, if you love it, don’t let your most recent memory be a negative one.  My dad loves to play golf, and when he is at the driving range, if he hooks or slices the last couple balls, he’ll buy one more bucket so he can have that “one good shot” before calling it a day.  My flight in the school’s Piper Warrior was short, but it offered me some time to focus on the thrill of flight, rather than what can go wrong.

The same concept can be applied to acting.  We’ve all been there:  we feel we have “blown” an audition, that we “weren’t what the director was looking for,” or we just “didn’t fit the part.”  One can’t help but re-play that experience over and over.  As professionals, we should never…ever…dwell on a bad experience, but taking time to rehearse a scene, perform a monologue, or attend a workshop will reinforce confidence while further developing our skills.

Scott J. Smith

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