The ground below hosted a thousand shades of green, and the previous day’s rain had washed away Atlanta’s yellow peril from the sky, leaving the air fresh and clear. The day was a welcome gift and I chose to ignore the responsibilities and obligations that clawed away at my time. Climb out was smooth and satisfaction fell over me like a comforting blanket as my world came into glorious view.
Wind shifts and swirls were the norm of the constantly changing spring weather patterns, but today’s air was smooth, and my vanity longed for a series of touch and goes so whisper soft that I had to look out my window to see if I had actually touched the ground. I wanted to land on the left main, the right main, on both mains. I wanted to dance the Tennessee waltz. I wanted to play.
My walk-around in the early morning air was routine and my run-up was normal. My southwest departure took me over my community in minutes with Sharp Mountain to my right. As the Luscombe flies, my home was six miles to the southwest.
I lurked around the sky, noticing the changes that spring had wrought, and after a little meandering, I turned east. I was considering a jaunt toward the mountains or perhaps maneuvering for an extended downwind for 16 to start my dance of grace with the runway.
I was about six miles out and totally immersed in my aluminum cocoon when it happened. An audible “”snap”" and, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose. The entire airplane began to shake. Instinct and reality became one. As my eyes fell on oil pressure and temperature gauges in the normal range, I pulled carb heat although I doubted carburetor ice was my problem. I fly behind Continentals and have experienced that problem before. Some time within my isolated sphere, I pulled my right fuel valve open. I don’t remember doing it, but it was done when I later noticed. Although I had a serious power loss, I still pulled back on the throttle to control the shaking. It felt like I was hovering in the air.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if it was an engine problem or if something had flung itself off of the airplane. But the shaking was violent and the immediate need was to control it. Reduced throttle helped the immediate problem, but reduced my options, and I looked at a scenario that was nothing short of deja vu.
Last August, James Collins, my CFI, had pulled an engine out at nearly the same distance and altitude during my BFR. I remember it so vividly because I failed it. He gave me just enough distance and altitude to make the wrong decisions for that grass field. In fact, my vanity wanted to show off. Instead I could have killed us.
Engine out scenarios are such that you have no time to think, just react; or you have altitude to make pretty spirals in the sky; or, like me, you have just enough time to kill yourself. I thanked the Good Lord for my BFR as I decided: one: I could make a hasty straight-in approach for 34 with no dallying; two: I could try for the engine out Olympics and attempt a perfect landing with a downwind, base and final for 16; or three: I could land behind the liquor store on Georgia Highway 515 and have all the comfort I would need until the authorities arrived.
In seconds, I determined I might have enough power to make it to the runway. I did not have power for a go-around. Three-four at Juliet Zulu Papa is a bear when the wind is out of the west. We have a suction machine that will pull the unwary below the level of the runway. I was determined not to come up short. And I was determined to save myself, not my airplane. Strangely, that can be a hard decision, and Mr. Collins addressed it with firmness at that last BFR.
Looking down the barrel of old 34 was a humbling experience. I am not ashamed to say that I prayed first. Then I hoped that I wouldn’t shame my family, my flying friends and my CFI by coming up short. For the first time in my life, I understood the insecurities that often plague the Southern male psyche. I announced a four-mile straight in for 34 with engine trouble and asked Pickens County Unicom if they copied.
Frankly, I wanted to hear a comforting voice. Instead, as I approached, I could see that my friends and fellow pilots lined the runway in a Madri Gras display to see the crash. It was my intent to disappoint them.
I allowed myself a gentle descent, but I still had a good bit of altitude on short final. As soon as it was confirmed that 34 held no demons to torment me, I pulled what little power was left and slipped Lester for all he was worth, keeping my nose pegged so my airspeed would remain steady. Without the shaking I could hear just how sick my engine sounded and felt reality clutch my innards. I only had one chance. The approach and the slip brought me down to the second third of the runway. My friend, Boonie, claimed it was the best three-point landing he’s seen me make. I wouldn’t know, as I was too busy flying the airplane to notice.
My first call was to my husband and my second was to my CFI. I let the Old Man know that I was okay and that his A&P services would be needed. I let Mr. Collins know that I was extremely thankful for the quality of training that I received under his tutelage, and that the lessons stressed last August hit the mark. I confirmed that I followed those procedures taught, picked my field, stayed with it and landed beyond the threshold.
Later that day I found out I had a stuck exhaust valve due to lead deposits, not uncommon when burning 100 not so low lead fuel. It was a problem quickly fixed that left me with some options for prevention in the future.
The reaction from my peers to my episode was mixed. Boonie was proud and strutted like a proud papa. Mr. Collins was pleased that I followed my training, and the Old Man was kind of quiet. The most bemusing comments were from folks who wanted know exact numbers like, “”How many rpms did you lose?”" “”What was your airspeed?”" I couldn’t say. Once I determined I could make the field, I never took my eyes off of it. Fortunately, the Good Lord gave me just enough sense to keep flying the airplane.