If you fly long enough, you will experience a problem in flight.
Maybe you’ll hit a bird. Maybe your wings will ice up. Maybe you’ll get distracted in your pre-landing check and forget to lower the gear. Fuel lines get vapor lock. Gunk clogs the fuel injector. A bug or moisture fills the static port. Stuff happens.
Each kind of problem makes itself known if you know how to watch for the clues — and take them seriously.
My husband, Maury L. Fisher, MD, and I were flying a Cessna 210 from Bartow, Florida, to Asheville, North Carolina, on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, when the engine revealed a clue. Though we both have our licenses, I had fallen out of currency and was relegated to the copilot’s seat.
Handsome was PIC. At 10,000’ the engine analyzer started acting wonky. That’s my technical term for when the cylinder head temperature reading disappeared on cylinder one.
In the past, a cylinder reading disappeared because a sensor probe came loose and backed out.
This time, Handsome mentioned it and stated that since we were cruising at 184 knots, we couldn’t have lost the cylinder’s power. All other gauges of power and temperature and fuel flow remained steady and within the normal range on our 200-hour IO-550-L Lycoming engine.
So we agreed to watch the gauges, continue the flight, and have it checked when we returned home. The Jacksonville air traffic controller cleared us to climb to 12,000′ to get above clouds.
At 11,000’ the engine shook hard, and the happy engine hum turned into a galloping sound. Instead of showing six green columns, our engine analyzer showed three.
We were over the Okefenokee Swamp, 684 square miles of alligator and snake-infested wetland that spreads across the Florida-Georgia border. The name Okefenokee is a Native American word meaning trembling earth. I wanted to land on solid ground, like a runway or a road.
The autopilot struggled to maintain altitude. We lost horsepower. Handsome notified the Jacksonville controller that the engine was running rough. (The engine sounded like a horse trying to kick its way out.) He asked for the nearest airport. The controller offered Lake City at 28 miles behind us or another airport 30 miles ahead. Handsome asked for Lake City’s identifier.
I took a quick inventory of emergency supplies. We had no water, a few snacks, two 9mm handguns, and a handheld radio.
My wicked memory flashed to May 1996 when ValueJet Flight 592 crashed in the swamp near Miami with 110 people on board. It sank, and parts of it were finally located a month later. Handsome’s seaplane rating gave me some comfort.
My hand shook as I entered KLCQ into the Apollo CNX80 autopilot as our new destination. Our autopilot is synched to a Garmin MX200 with traffic. I was about to press ENTER to activate the new destination when Handsome reached over and started the process over.
He was in his zone, focused on what to do, so he hadn’t noticed the new reading. His hand wasn’t shaking.
The controller recited the heading to Lake City and the number of degrees to turn left on course. My body temperature rose while I calculated the rate of descent needed to reach Lake City if the last three cylinders stopped firing. We were descending 200 feet per minute on half power. Without power, we’d be forced to land in a roadless section of trembling earth.
The engine seemed to be holding together. It wasn’t spewing oil or smoke. Handsome maintained a calm demeanor. Decades of working in the emergency room and in surgery taught him to school his emotions. He also has 1,500 more flying hours than his copilot.
I sent up a quick prayer and remembered that I’d once landed safely after a cylinder blew. I was grateful this was not a solo flight, or my turn to fly. I imagine I would have done exactly as he did during the engine problem, but in truth, I’d have sweat-soaked the upholstery in the process like a nuclear hot flash.
The controller spoke in calming tones as he gave the tower frequency for Lake City Airport and the weather conditions there. He named the runways and reported that Lake City cleared us for any runway.
Then he asked, “How many souls on board and how much fuel?”
There’s something about hearing an air traffic controller ask that question that ratchets up the stress factor. By the time the words are spoken you already know there’s a problem. But still.
Handsome answered while I took a calming breath. At 3,000’ we broke out from the clouds and saw the airport. Ten miles to go. Handsome said he wouldn’t drop the gear until he had the airport made. By “made” he meant glide in with a dead engine.
On short final, he dropped the gear and pulled back the power. The engine’s syncopated rhythm sounded more pronounced. We landed and taxied to the end of runway 010, past the Lake City Fire Department’s tank-like yellow crash truck. We sputtered down the taxiway and passed a red firetruck to the parking area. The linemen directed us to a spot isolated from other aircraft.
There’s a moment in the movie Armageddon after men jump a rover over a canyon on an asteroid and crash land. Actor Michael Clarke Duncan, covered in sweat in the back seat, says, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.” That. That’s how I felt.
We climbed out. The firemen, three police officers, two linemen, Handsome and I breathed a collective sigh. Bo, Byron, and Larry in the tower probably sighed, too. Thanks, guys!
Airport Lineman Crew Leader Ed Bunnell said, “Welcome to Lake City.” He secured chocks under the nose wheel. “What can we do for you?”
I wanted a hug. Handsome asked for a mechanic. While they arranged for a mechanic, I planned an emergency kit for future flights.
We often fly over the Appalachian Mountains. It’s embarrassing how complacent we had become about these routine flights. Next time, we’ll bring bottled water, flashlights, granola bars, maybe a flare gun, a reflective blanket, a first-aid kit, a sweat towel, and a 45-caliber handgun. The Okefenokee has gators, and snakes, and black bears. Oh, my.