The in-flight emergency nobody prepared me for

Many years ago I was a pilot for a skydiving operation – a novel experience that came to me strictly by chance. At the time I was an executive in an aircraft repair and maintenance company, and one of my employees was a jumper at that skydiving operation. Both of these “companies” were located in the Washington, DC area. When that employee learned that I was a commercial pilot who, by the way, at that time just flew irregularly to maintain competence – he came to me and said that the skydiving operation was looking for a reliable person to be a standby jump pilot. I felt that I was nothing if not reliable, and the idea of getting to fly jumpers was very intriguing. So I said I was interested, and he arranged for me to get a tryout.

Cessna 182
It’s a Cessna 182 – what could possibly go wrong?

The primary airplanes the jump operation used were models I was very experienced in – they were Cessna 182s – and I even had some input to their configuration as I was involved in the development of the predecessor Model 180. And these 182s were even from that era, being about 30 years old, though that didn’t give me any concern. The owner gave me a check ride in one of those 182s that was about general flying ability, with nothing that I recognized was particularly about skydiving flying – of which I knew nothing. When we landed, he pointed to another 182 standing idly by, and said take that airplane and start flying loads; there are jumpers waiting.

I’m starting with the beginning of this whole thing because it was the time of a somewhat humorous happening that possibly was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened in my flying experiences. I was feeling really great about my piloting capabilities because my check ride was so good I was being put directly into actual operations. (Whatever happened to standby?) I snuggled down smugly in this other 182 and began the starting procedure – except I couldn’t find the starter!

In various Cessna airplanes I had used starters that were keys you turned, levers you pulled, or buttons you pushed, but I couldn’t find any of these things after careful and repeated scanning of the panel and controls. So I got out and sheepishly went to the boss and asked for help in locating that missing control. What he showed me was a button, unmarked, they had placed outside of the glare shield during some modification, where I hadn’t even thought of looking. I tried it and it worked marvelously.

I did take several loads of jumpers that day, I thought successfully, but I guess I had seen too many WWII bombing movies because I flew to jump altitude, away from the jump zone, and made a steady level bombing-like run to it, had my jumpers leave right over the target, and flew leisurely back to the field to enter the pattern. Let me say here that this was the only jump operation I ever flew for, so I don’t know how others did it. But I was informed quite emphatically that this one was a business with lots of paying clients waiting (im)patiently, and I wasn’t to diddle around the sky but was to climb at full power directly to the jump zone, leveling off at the jump altitude, immediately discharge my load and descend rapidly and not enter a pattern but land directly on the runway. That was possible because we jump pilots were in communication with each other and the office, and there was essentially no other traffic at the field, which was the boss’ private airport.

Skydivers
And they think the skydiving is the scary part…

I learned to do these things, and actually to enjoy the somewhat carefree way of flying, and did it for about a year and a half (it seemed longer) before we moved away from the DC area. It might become tedious on summer weekends, when we flew from 9am to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes were even called to fly on Friday evenings. My wife didn’t much like that schedule, which took up most of my non-working time – but I was reliable. Jump altitudes were from 3,000 to 12,000 feet and we were expected to get in three jump loads of three to four people (depending on their size) an hour. We flew with light fuel loads. And we had to eat lunch while flying. It was a business, though we pilots didn’t get paid much (and no overtime) – the others were much younger than me and were building time so they could in the future fly for an airline.

I should add that the jump zone was normally at the airport itself, so divers could gather their gear and walk to the hangar to get ready for the next jump. That was important for the flight that is the real subject of this article, which happened after I became a seasoned skydiving pilot.

The flight in question was a routine one, with three jumpers who wanted to jump from 10,000 feet. I did the usual full-power climb to 10,000 and was right at the jump zone so was ready to reduce power and level off for the jump. Except I couldn’t budge the throttle. I tried everything including bracing myself against structure and pulling as hard as I could, but it wouldn’t move. I turned to the jumpers and said I couldn’t reduce power so their options were to jump right then or ride the airplane down with me. I was alone in about five seconds.

In keeping with the theme of this article, you are schooled in what to do when you lose all power, but nobody ever covered the case when you couldn’t get out of full power. I guess I thought I might be able to do it myself, and wanted to stay in the vicinity of the airport, so I set the prop to the lowest thrust angle and immediately started a 1080 degree spiral, which is something you were taught to do. (I didn’t limit it to 1080 degrees in this case!) I was pulling on the elevator control mightily, was pretty slow, was staying in steep turns and was gradually losing altitude – until I got to about 3,000 feet above the ground, and the airplane wouldn’t descend any more.

 

Throttle in Cessna
We practice engine failures, but what if it fails in the “full” position?

I imagine my jumpers had reported the situation to the boss, and I thought it was time to communicate with the ground to see if we could agree on what to do next and have them prepared to clear the area for me. The boss and I did talk, calmly, and decided to see if reducing the mixture control would have any effect. It didn’t; that is, the power didn’t reduce as you pulled it back – unless you pulled it to the off position, at which time the engine quit. But that did give me some leeway to continue to descend and hopefully get positioned for a dead stick landing. For comfort I would periodically push the mixture control on, just to make sure I could get power, even too much power, when I needed it. The engine would surge back on and I would shut off the fuel again.

Using this on again/off again procedure, I was able to maneuver into a position lined up with the runway and at an altitude at which I could make a pretty normal power-off approach. I shut the fuel off, I hoped for the last time, and made a gliding descent to a landing. I let the airplane roll to a place accessible to the entrance to the runway, because I wasn’t about to try to taxi the airplane with full power on and then off, but wanted someone to come and tow me. They did, without my asking.

It was found that the throttle control had entered, broken and lodged, they said, in the carburetor, and as I very well knew, couldn’t be moved.

So now readers will know at least a couple of ways to deal with the much overlooked “only full power on” emergency if it happens to them. But stay close to the airport.

7 Comments

  • This is the first time that I have read of someone else having this problem.
    Yup – C182 (ZS-CSW) para dropping at Mmabatho (South Africa) back in the early 90’s – climbed to altitude, couldn’t throttle back – waved goodbye to the passengers, and move the mixture to idle cut-off. Treated it as an engine failure (which I’d had the day before, on the same aircraft) and landed it from the glide.

    I’m very glad that we both made it……

    Mark Fouche’

    • Very interesting. I didn’t want to emphasize it, but maybe all skydiving airplanes aren’t as well maintained as they should be, given their high utilization. But, at least in our case, there were four days with almost no activity between the high activity weekends.
      I, too, had an engine power failure before this max power incident.
      But we had three 182’s and I don’t know if both my incidents were in the same airplane.

  • I had a similar problem in a light sport with no fuel mixture control. When doing touch and goes at a regional airport, away from my home airport by about 30 miles. The flight was pretty normal except after landing on the touch and go the engine wouldn’t come back up to speed (about 5400rpm in a Rotax) but instead came up to about 4400rpm. It was enough to fly, but not do anything – especially climb. I had already taken back off and with an airplane on short final behind me I elected to continue forward slowly climbing back out at 50fpm. My plan at that time was to get enough altitude to make a turn to the x-wind runway and land there. It was a very uncomfortable climb to turn. By the time the x-wind was ready the engine had lumbered back up to full power over the several minutes I was in-flight.

    At that time I made the decision (and the second poor decision on this flight) that since I was at full power and airborne to make a run for the home airport since all of the equipment to fix it was there. In flight there was no issue with the engine but I did “play” with the throttle to attempt to see how it would change the RPM on the engine. The retard on the throttle was slow at best.

    Upon entering the pattern I had the runway made and pulled the throttle back to idle – except the engine only came down to 2200rpm – not enough to actually land the aircraft. I would have just floated along the runway and never touched down in a desired fashion. So, much like this story, once I had the runway made, I just reached up, killed the engine and dead-sticked the plane on the runway. Once off the active, I started the engine up and taxied over to the hangar.

    The culprit? A broken spring on the carb wasn’t allowing the throttle cable to push the carbs open all the way and allow them to function normally.

    It was a learning experience throughout and I’d likely do it a bit differently.

    Brian

  • What a confusing condition – not just all or no power but variable limits of differing magnitude! I had one experience of a different type – there was one RPM, 1800, at which the engine wouldn’t run – it would quit all together. It was a fixed pitch prop, so if you could move through 1800 – either while increasing or decreasing airplane speed and RPM, it would function well on either side of that no power point.
    I was about 20 years old, in college, and had to attend ROTC camp in the summer for about six weeks – so couldn’t get a regular job but before and after camp worked as a line boy at a small private airport – for flying time in their Aeronca 7AC training plane.
    The airplane, another Aeronca (Sedan), with the engine that quit at 1800 was bought by another kid about my age who purchased it and “re” covered the fabric. Our field mechanic tested the engine and we all knew it didn’t function at 1800 – it just stopped. He couldn’t figure out why – so “we” had to live with it.
    The kid thought I was a better pilot than he was so asked me to do the first flight after he finished the recovering – but I took him along for comfort that the covering job was done well.
    I knew you had to be accelerating when going “through” 1800 on takeoff – or brake and restart – and had to hurry through 1800 while reducing power on landing. It worked, but was worrisome.
    He wanted me to go with him on his first time flying the airplane, and we got through it once more – but I never got in that airplane again.

  • This happened to me one night while my mechanic and I were breaking in some new cylinders on my Cessna 185. After four hours of droning around at maximum continuous power, we entered the pattern and the throttle and cable pulled clear out of the panel when I tried to reduce power. I’d just seen the movie Blue Max, where the WW1 fighters used ignition-interrupt (burp) buttons for power management, so I tried just turning off the ignition. Bad Idea–those guys didn’t have mufflers, which when glowing hot after four hours of high power just cause combustion and backfiring in the muffler and leave a trail of flame across the sky. I switched back on and used the mixture control just as the author did to kill the engine at the appropriate place and dead-stick in. The other mechanic who’d worked on the cylinders was just coming out of the local theater when we left our trail of flame, and the FBO owner who lived near the airport and who’d heard us drone by every 15 minutes for four hours, then start backfiring on the final pass–followed by silence–both came screaming into the airport just after we landed so we didn’t even have to push the plane in from the runway.

  • Guess the fixed full power emergency is more common than one might think. Maybe combatting it ought to be in the training procedures.

  • Interesting Discussion. Something we are not taught to this about. II will start including this in the instruction of my students.

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