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Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

When a Successful Flight Is Actually a Failure

By Terry Peterson

It was the end of January, and my well-equipped 1985 Piper Warrior would be out of annual on February 1. I called and made an appointment with my A&P for the annual. The 50 nm trip was to Kenosha, Wisconsin, from West Chicago, Illinois.

Dark clouds

Single pilot IFR at night – not the time to add schedule pressure.

I looked at the weather for the last week of January, but the weather was not looking like it was going to cooperate. There was rain and snow in the forecast all week. It was looking like my annual was going to be expired and my plane was going to be grounded. I called the local FSDO and inquired about getting a ferry permit and they seemed very helpful and willing to get me what I needed to stay airworthy and get my plane to maintenance. I foolishly declined their help and told them if I can’t make the trip by the end of the month I would call them back and start the process of getting the ferry permit.

As the date neared, the weather seemed to be getting progressively worse. So finally, the last day of the month was upon me and I felt pressured by myself to get the Warrior to annual before it was too late and I would need to get a ferry permit.

I had to work during the day and this was going to be a night flight. The bases were between 500 and 700 feet all day long. So now this was going to be an IFR night flight. At this time, I was a commercial single-engine land, instrument pilot with about 500 hours and 100 on instruments, ten of which were in actual IFR. What was making matters worse was a winter thunderstorm just south of West Chicago, moving north.

The plan at this stage was to take off from Dupage, head to Kenosha then get a car ride back to Dupage. I felt that this was going to be a one-way trip and I would not be able to get back due to weather. If I could not make my destination, I could keep going northeast and find MVFR weather. As I was doing the preflight, the ceilings came down to about 400 feet and light rain.

I called for fuel and two line guys came out, one of them must have been training a new line guy. I was already a little apprehensive about the trip. Did I mention this was my first solo IFR night flight? During the fueling of my plane, one of the line guys asked me if I were planning on flying tonight and I replied, “I sure am.” He then asked if I was IFR rated and I replied yes. He began to tell me that he was taking lessons for his private and would never think of flying in this weather.

Just then, the other line guy came up to both of us and asked me if I was going to be flying tonight and, if I was, had I filed IFR and asked if I was sure I wanted to go. I replied to all his questions with, “Yes, it will be no problem.”

It was right about this time I began having second thoughts about the plan I had set in place, but I was able to block out those thoughts and pressed on. I started the Lycoming 320 in the Warrior and got my clearance and began taxiing to the runway threshold. I stopped and did a run up–all systems looked good to go. I tuned all my nav frequencies and tuned in the ILS on the runway I was departing just in case I had to make an immediate and unexpected return.

I was cleared to take off and then a thought passed through my head as I lined up on the centerline for takeoff. I was thinking that it had been almost 13 months since an A&P looked at this aircraft so if there was something to go wrong it would be on this flight. But again I pushed this to back of my mind as I pushed in full throttle and took off in to the night IMC for the first time. I was ahead of the aircraft the whole trip.


Nobody has looked at the engine in 13 months – hope it keeps running.

As I was on final, I clicked on the lights at the airport at least five times so I knew thay would be on at DH. I flew the whole flight and approach under IMC and broke out of the clouds at about 400 AGL. I landed and parked the aircraft. I felt relieved and rewarded all at the same time. I met my friend waiting for me in the parking lot and he brought me back to my car.

The next day I drove to the A&P to assist with the annual. When I arrived, they had already started the annual. I was informed that the compression in one of the cylinders was very low and the cylinder needed to come off to inspect it. I was standing next to the A&P when he pulled the cylinder off and pieces of the cylinder’s compression ring fell out on to the floor. Needless to say I needed a new cylinder.

When I look back, I see that I was pressuring myself to make the trip against the line guys’ and my better judgment. I know better, but getting the aircraft there on time got the best of me and clouded my judgment. I know the flight was an overall success, but it was a failure in my book.

Terry is a CSEL IA pilot with over 700 hours flight time. He is also a CFI-CFII applicant. He is an active member of a local flight club and Angel flight pilot. He is in sales and father of four. He is actively flying all over the Midwest and logged over 200 hours last year.

Terry Peterson
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5 replies
  1. Barnabis Rocktall
    Barnabis Rocktall says:

    This sounds like my first IFR flight comrade, but my plane ended up losing power, and I had to glide onto a local highway. Great job, Captain!

  2. Josh Johnson
    Josh Johnson says:

    The winter thunderstorm at night part of the story is what makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Been there, got the T-shirt and don’t ever, and I do mean ever, want to do it again. 90 degree roll excursions, 1500+ fpm up and down drafts, and I was at 2500 feet. At 10k, it would have been fatal.

  3. Duane
    Duane says:

    Terry – don’t beat yourself up too badly over this one – it’s a learning experience. Being warned about IFR by a couple of non-certificated flight line guys means next to nothing … but having overcome your own reservations about the flight (first solo night IFR), that’s another matter.

    As for the engine, you could have had the low compression in your Warrior for a very long time without you knowing it – regardless of the 13 months period since your last annual … Those Lycoming O-320s and O-360s aren’t called “bullet proof” for nothing!

    That’s also a good reason why you might want to have your mechanic check your cylinder compressions more than just at annual … my IA recommends a compression check every 50 hours, especially for older engines (like mine and yours), or those engines getting close to or beyond TBO.

    My Cherokee 180 went into annual a couple of years ago, and a similar low compression on one cylinder was found. When the cylinder was removed and inspected, it had a cracked valve guide resulting in a piece of the cylinder head actually being broken off! I hadn’t noticed any recent or sudden drop off in engine performance, and my IA told me that despite the low compression, the cylinder was likely still putting out at least some power.

    Somewhat like your successfully completed night IFR flight, just a few weeks before the annual inspection I had flown my Cherokee to a high elevation backcountry unimproved airstrip to a fly-in in New Mexico – and had taken off just fine from the dirt strip at a DA in excess of 9000 ft! With (apparently) only three good cylinders!

  4. Dave huprich
    Dave huprich says:

    You were lucky on many levels. So was I on my night IFR “adventure” with multiple T-storms that redefined my understanding of turbulence. I wrote an article about it in these pages a while back. Lesson for both of us: Just because we got away with it once doesn’t mean we’d get away with it the second time.

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