The emergency that wasn’t

I have had the absolute privilege of owning N29HL, a Cessna 172M, for right at one year. In that year, she has taken my family and me from our home base at 5R4 (Foley, Alabama) to Oklahoma for a family Christmas, New Orleans for business and pleasure, Jacksonville to visit friends, Auburn for football games, and many places in between, logging about 150 hours over that time. My five-year old daughter’s favorite place to visit, however, is Dauphin Island, identifier 4R9, a short 24 NM flight along one of the prettiest beaches in the world, to a secluded island runway with our “private beach” and crabs by the thousands for the catching.

Cessna 172
Owning an airplane is immensely rewarding, but there are downsides.

Two facts are of particular importance for this story. First, I am blessed to co-own 9HL with a wonderful friend and mentor who owns a flight school, and uses the plane for instruction whenever I’m not flying her. Second, I have checked the oil in this plane so many times I couldn’t begin to count. In recounting this, I hope to not only tell the story, but give a glimpse into what was happening in real-time as the evening unfolded.

This Saturday evening began like so many. “Daddy, can we go fly to Dauphin Island for a daddy-daughter date?” my five-year old asks. After a quick check of the weather (the usual summer afternoon CN’s popping up, bases about 3500 feet, the proverbial weather prediction of scattered thunderstorms, and plenty of room to fly well around them) I get permission from the boss (mom) and give the go-ahead. We get to the airport at 5 pm, and she helps me pre-flight the plane.

A check of the maintenance logs showed that the plane had just had a 50-hour oil-change and had not been flown since. On preflight the dipstick showed eight quarts of oil. No other squawks on pre-flight, run-up complete, one lap around the pattern for good measure, and we were off across the bay to a carrier-style landing (ok, as close as I’ll ever get anyways) at Dauphin Island. Squeaked the wheels down, secured the plane, and we were off for fun.

As the sun began its slow descent, we headed back to the plane for our homeward leg. This was where things got interesting. Convincing the five-year old to leave the beach with all the crabs to catch and pretty shells to collect was not a quick business, and I underestimated the amount of time needed to get back to the plane in full light.

The sun was low on the horizon as we got to the plane, and the idea of a takeoff over the water after sundown was low on my list of fun things to do with a tired/hungry kid in the right seat.

Catching crabs
Quick trips like this are only possible with a small airplane.

In years past I would have skipped the full pre-flight, knowing that no one had touched the plane, and that I just completed a thorough inspection two hours before and flew only a 30-minute flight. I’ve become a bit of a safety nut in the last year though (thanks in large part to achieving my instrument rating), so I overcame the urge to launch and did my standard walk-around.

Everything was normal until I got to the oil (always my last step in a well-defined process). When I pulled out the dipstick, I could read every tick mark down to the two-quart mark, in shiny silver. I grabbed a rag from the plane, wiped it down, stuck it back in, pulled it back out, and checked again. Still no oil to be found. I looked over at the sun and saw it resting on the water, sinking by the second. I again wiped the dipstick, stuck it back in, screwed it down this time, and then reversed course and carefully inspected it under the flashlight that I have the five-year old bring from the plane. Nothing.

I simply couldn’t believe it. The plane ran fine all the way over. I always do a gauge check, including temps and pressures, as I enter the pattern (old habit from flying a Cherokee where “gas on the fullest tank” meant something), and I didn’t recall anything being awry as we landed. Had I simply overlooked this due to expectation bias? Was I so lucky that I had dumped all my oil, but had not overheated or damaged the engine due to the short flight?

I got behind the rear seats to grab a quart of oil and put it in, just to see if it would register. Maybe I could add enough to get us back home? A check of the cargo area revealed that someone had used the quart I always keep in the plane, and not replaced it. Being such a short flight, I didn’t bother to check for spare oil, especially with eight quarts in the case!

I cursed myself for this seemingly simple oversight as my mind started to race. Can I make the flight home? Do I call someone to come get us? By car or by air? Bed time was coming, we hadn’t eaten dinner, and daylight was quickly fading. Further, Dauphin Island’s runway sits over the water, making any night landings a perfect setup for a black-hole effect NTSB story.

4R9
Dauphin Island is not the best airport for engine trouble.

On the other hand, the 24NM direct flight equates to an hour and 45-minute drive one-way by car due to geography. Even with these factors, I quickly ruled out making the flight. No matter what route I took, a short portion (or long if I went direct) would put me over the water, at twilight. While an engine-out scenario would never be fun, these factors would seem to make it lethal, especially with my five-year old on board.

I called my flight instructor, friend, and mentor, who teaches out of the school I co-own the plane with. He graciously dropped what he was doing and headed to the home airport to grab another plane and come be our knight in shining armor. I then called my co-owner, who owns the flight school, and filled him in on the situation. “Where did the oil go?” he asked. Hmm, that’s a great question, I thought.

While on the phone, I began to look the plane over in earnest. The 172M model, like many others, has only the oil-hatch door on the cowling, so a good look inside isn’t really possible on the ramp. Nothing down the sides. Laying on my back, I saw a slight film over the bottom of the plane, and shining a light on the front fork revealed a small amount of oil. “Aha!” I exclaimed. Likely the result of a loose oil filter, or possibly a leaking sump I astutely diagnosed. Funny that there was no oil in the hangar when I got the plane out…

After securing the plane on the tie-downs for the night, our evening concluded with an hour wait on the runway (that was fun with a five-year old), a night takeoff from Dauphin Island back home in a different plane than the one we arrived in, and very late night for all involved. Safety wins again!

So why was this the emergency that wasn’t? The easy and first answer was a thorough pre-flight revealed a potentially serious safety condition that could have been fatal had it been ignored or skipped. The real reason, however, is a bit more embarrassing. The chief mechanic from the flight school flew over the next morning to diagnose the problem and fix it so the plane could be brought home. When he pulled the dipstick, there were just over seven quarts of oil in the case.

Kid in Cessna
When you’re flying with kids, the risk-reward trade-offs often change.

As it turns out, the brand new oil, once heated on our flight to the island, had turned as translucent as water on the shiny silver dipstick. Inspecting the dipstick while looking towards the setting sun across the cowling made it virtually impossible to see the oil, and far easier to see the markings than usual. In checking the oil hundreds of times before flights, both right after and far away from an oil change, I have never seen oil like this. I even went to the ramp after the plane was brought home to see it again for myself, sure that there was another explanation.

In the end, I had to hang my head, take some good-natured ribbing, and swallow what little pride I had left. But what about the oil I saw on the fork and belly? It turned out the oil I had seen on the fork was a small amount that had spilled during the oil-change and didn’t get cleaned up because a storm sent the mechanics and line-crew running to get planes inside immediately after a run-up and leak check was performed on my plane, and to the best of my assumption this spill must have sprayed a light sheen down the belly of the plane on our flight, giving me confirmation that I indeed had no oil in the crankcase.

I made my sincere apologies to those affected by my blunder, and scampered away from the field with my head hung low to process. In doing so, there were a number of take-aways from the experience that I would like to pass on.

  1. Never, EVER, skip your pre-flight. You never know what can change, even on a short flight or with no one else touching the plane since you landed last. Had there really been no oil in the plane, and had I rushed past this to get off the ground before twilight, we could have had a complete engine failure over water or very desolate land. While I have mentally prepared for a ditching or forced landing, and practice the latter regularly, doing it for real with my five-year old on board is something I pray to never encounter.
  2. Get-home-itis is real. We’ve all read the stories and NTSB reports, so this sounds like a “DUH” kind of statement, but here is how it affected me. I had to make myself believe that I didn’t have oil in the plane (ironic really, but in the moment, that was my reality). I checked the dipstick three times not because I thought there really was sufficient oil and it would show up, but simply because I couldn’t believe that there was no oil in the engine.
  3. Aviation is a wonderful and small community, and I’m never alone. I didn’t want to call in someone to come get my daughter and me because it would affect their schedule (and admittedly, I still feel bad about this). However, no one affected was upset, and all validated my decision to not fly the plane given what I thought I knew. Was I let off scott-free? Of course not. We’re too good of friends for that. But I was encouraged to make that decision every single time. I was also encouraged to go get my eyes checked before flying again.

I told my daughter all of this, from the problem with not having oil that night, to finding out that there was actually oil the whole time. Her response: “Daddy, you had oil the whole time! You’re so silly. We could have flown home in Hotel Lima!” Five minutes later, after we’d moved on to other things she quieted down and then said: “Daddy, thank you for keeping us safe, even if you are silly.”

She thinks I made the right decision. Do you?

64 Comments

  • Chris,

    It is nearly impossible to see fresh oil on the dipstick in such weak illumination. You absolutely made the proper call – and, in the telling, gave us a good laugh!

    • Thanks Kim :). It’s funny how some of the more embarrassing things turn out to be the most memorable! When I hoped to make flying memories with my daughter, this wasn’t the one I had in mind, but every time we’ve been to Dauphin since, she asks “Daddy, do we have oil this time?”. Out of the mouth of babes, lol.

    • Chris,
      Didn’t you look at the rag? There had to be some oil accumulated on it, especially after 2-3 times checking & wiping.
      However, ALWAYS better to be safe than sorry. You made the right call.
      I always believe if it doesn’t feel right, it most likely isn’t.

      • The rag was a blue “shop towel” paper towel. There was a bit on the rag, but because I could so easily see the tick-marks of the dipstick, I couldn’t convince myself it wasn’t just me scraping down the side of the dipstick tube on the way down…

        It didn’t feel right the whole time, but I couldn’t put all the pieces together! Hindsight makes all the little inconsistencies so easy to see for me :).

  • I couldn’t count the number of times over the years when I’ve had a student preflight right after an oil change and claim there’s no oil.
    In this situation, when you remove the dipstick, lay it on a clean paper towel, then pick it up. You’ll easily see the oil stain on the paper, and you can match it up with the dipstick markings to see the quantity.

    • Thanks for the tip Rodney! My instrument flight instructor suggested something similar. Amazing how simple that would have been at the time. What shocked me was how clearly I could see the lower dipstick markings. Definitely a license to learn!

    • There are pilots: (airline pilots too) with many flying hours who do pre-flight walk arounds. Needless to say it was pre-flight. That was just a walk-around. Few of them have missed out the external flight controls lock. It is prohibited to install external locks now but were available earlier. Few of them have crashed too. I remember one Pilatus Porter flying out Kathmandu, Nepal to Namche Bazar to the east. Onboard were wife of Sir Edmund Hilary and his two daughters. Pilot took-off with the external lock engaged. All perished.

  • Absolutely the correct decision, Chris! Any indication of a mission-critical problem is a no-go. Your precious cargo underscores the validity and necessity of your decision. High five and fist bump!

    I always tell my students that there is no place for ego in the cockpit, so don’t hang your your head for good ADM.

    Happy and safe flying!

  • Make sure you carefully clean the dipstick, then insert and remove it from the sump. Put your thumb on the dipstick above the full mark then slide it down the dipstick. When you get to the full mark stop and inspect your thumb. Keep going, one tick mark at a time, until you see/feel oil on your thumb.

  • Chris, Next time you do that, call me…. I will come from JKA in my 172M & pick you up.
    Don’t feel bad. I have trouble seeing the fresh oil too after I change it.. even in good light.
    You still made the right call..
    You may know my daughter, Teresa Russell, she is a Vet in Orange Beach…

    Vic Roberts
    Gulf Shores
    N8927V

    • Will do! I’d love to meet sometime. I fly with a buddy who has a 172 at KJKA frequently, so I’m there quite a bit. I can’t wait for 5he AOPA fly-in this fall!

  • Equally important you made the right choice for future scenarios, if it doesn’t seem right you aren’t launching.

    Others, after the enduring the ribbing and not wanting to be embarrassed again, then make the wrong choice of “I was wrong last time, I’m probably wrong this time” and launch with a problem that causes a mishap.

    Hangar flying is only useful when sharing the right lesson learned, thanks for sharing yours.

  • You absolutely made the right call. Loved the suggestions about the paper and the thumb down the dipstick. I saw that you have your instrument ticket. Congrats. Now it’s time to do the Commercial so your insurance rates go down. Good luck.

    • Commercial is next! Just looking for a way to get the 10 complex hours without blowing the budget! Unfortunately 29HL doesn’t count as a technically advanced aircraft! It’s in the works though.

  • Hi Chris!

    Great article! I particularly liked how you described your thoughts about what may have caused the loss of oil, and that you finally accepted your observation as a fact, even though you hadn’t found a satisfying explanation. I am a less experienced pilot than you are, but in my opinion you made the right decision. I don’t think there is a reason to feel embarrassed. Quite the opposite, I think you should be proud of your aeronautical decision making. Happy flying, and stay safe!

    Cheers,
    Andreas.

    • I appreciate that Andreas! I would make the same call again, but the folks giving me grief are good friends. They would still expect me to make the same decision!

  • Well this is a good story. A good pilot learns from stories just like this. Other pilots thoughts may indeed save the life of another pilot and crew.

  • Wow, now I don’t feel so blind! Lol!

    But what strikes me most is your daughter’s reaction at the end; you’ve raised her right; she connected the dots and realized the consequences of the decision process and that, in the end, is the moral of the story.

    • Thanks John! She amazes me every day with her perception. Things that passed right by me at 5 she internalizes and more often than not comes to a logical conclusion. We are blessed indeed.

  • As an auto mechanic, I’m always sympathetic to customers who accidentally misread a dipstick. I try to console them and say, it’s alright, I have trouble reading them sometimes too. They laugh and give me the “yeah right” you’ve been working on cars 15 years, etc. But the truth is, even the pros mess up sometimes. Clear oil is no joke deceiving. Glad we’re not reading about you in an NTSB report!!

    • Glad to hear I’m not the only one!

      My flying buddies and I have a decision making process where we ask “does this sound like the start to an NTSB report?” If the answer is yes or maybe, it’s time to rethink!!! Thanks for the great feedback!

  • No doubt about it you made the right decision. It is much better to get some good natured ribbing than your wife to have to write a eulogy. Well done for sticking to your guns.

  • Certainly the right decision. Another option is, when you’re at the point of not taking off, use the white light on your flashlight to check the dipstick, it will give you a more reflective view. Then wait the 15 minutes for you night vision to recover.

    • Thanks Joe! I did use my flashlight, but it seemed to make it even easier to see the markings on the dip stick! Further reasons to get my eyes checked….ironically, I had an eye exam already scheduled for about 2 weeks after this…

  • Chris…

    100% non-negotiable right decision

    I’m a 2000 hour ATP (not professional but went all the way) and have owed a Duchess, 2 Barons and a Duke.

    If you feel something is wrong baildout… Its not worth your life

    Richars

  • Did you make the right decision?
    Take a look at your happy and healthy five-year-old daughter. What’s a little embarrassment compared to risking her life?
    There’s your answer.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I had not thought of the difficulty of seeing the oil. And thank you to the mechanic who explained now to feel the dip stick when you can’t see the oil. Safety & confidence builder in your esperience for me.

    • Glad it provided some value Lynette! I’ve learned so much from reading other’s accounts here that I couldnt help but share. The aviation community is such a wonderful thing!

  • Chris, once I skipped a pre flight which led to a simultaneous dual engine failure in an Aztec! Fortunately I was at 7000 ft. VFR when they conked and a quick switch of the fuel selectors solved the problem. But I would have seen an almost empty tank ( caused by a faulty crossfeed switch position) had I looked on the ground. Never again – great story.

  • Great article! Good ADM given the circumstances, and a lesson learned and shared. Thank you. Best regards, John (father of 6 & 8 year old girls, with new for me 182T)

      • Not yet. I just finished up my flight review after 15 hours of dual. After 28 years I had a lot of rust to shake off! I will likely get another 25-50 hours under my belt before I take them on anything more than local flights. I am also going through my IFR training. But I have many day trips planned: Crystal River for the manatees, Lakeland for legoland, River Ranch for the rodeo, and and many weekend trips.

        • I just finished my IFR in April! It made me SUCH a more competent and confident pilot. Not sure if you have the time/availability, but the biggest thing to boost my confidence for longer cross-countries was planning one and flying it with a pilot buddy. That really helped before I put the family in the plane.
          We take a ton of day trips, but so far the most rewarding has been a family trip to Oklahoma! Spent Christmas with family and then back.

          You must be in Florida somewhere. Can you make the AOPA fly-in at Gulf Shores, AL next month? If so, let’s meet up!

  • Absolutely the right decision! I recently picked up an airplane from Florida after a fresh overhaul to fly it to Ohio. (Lots of stops to check the oil, de-cowl and check everything.) It was amazing how clear the oil was and how hard it was to read in the bright sunlight.

    Any decision made to scrub a flight because of safety concerns should never be (seriously) criticized. No one else was in your shoes at that moment and you made the right call given the information you had. Taking off with a perfectly healthy engine that you had doubts about would have been the wrong thing to do.

    • Thanks Steve! I imagine you’ve run into a preflight issue or two of you do much ferry work! I’m hoping to pick up that kind of work after my commercial!

  • In flying, if you are in doubt, ask someone. If there is no someone, stay on the ground. It is wisely said, “it is better to be on the ground and wish you were up…then to be up and wish you were on the ground”.
    What you did was perfectly good. You daughter was with you. You did not suffer from the ‘Get Homeitis’. We do make mistakes and some can be embarrassing. But it is better to make mistakes on the positive side. That you did. No harm done.
    We pilots must avoid situations that makes us say “I am sorry”.

  • I have often pondered Doing a less than full preflight on a quick turnaround. Now I have a very solid reason to keep that habit. Thanks for that Chris!

    • I used to do it all the time! Then I had a flap failure on a return trip after dropping someone off at another airport. I literally made a normal landing, shut down and said goodbye, fired back up (still did a run up) and launched……. no flaps back home. Now, I double check everything! Glad this helped!

  • Great story Chris. Based on what you were convinced of at the time, taking off from any airport, with or without passengers, regardless of the topography and without oil registering on the dipstick, the “go” decision would have been ludacris. So yes, you made the right decision.

    I think what we can learned from this, is that no matter how convinced we are of a conclusion, if it doesn’t make sense, its probably not the correct answer. In solving problems we can see the solution as (in most cases) a single piece of fruit hanging on a branch of a tree (clear oil). We always start at the trunk (the problem) and through obvious facts and our assumptions (visable tick marks on the dip stick, traces of oil on the belly), we make our way through each intersection of branches to find the fruit (the truth, as in plenty of oil).

    It’s very easy for these assumptions and observations to mis-guide us down a fruitless branch. When we’ve reached the end of what seems like the only path (oil mysteriously vanished from the oil sump), it can be very difficult to acknowledge the lack of a sensible conclusion and bring ourselves all the way back to the trunk and start over. However, if we do clean the slate (disreagard all previous assumptions) and start from the beginning, we’ll often unveil some incorrect assumptions and ultimately find the path to the sensible conclusion.

    In your case, had you fully exercised this problem solving process and even found the truth, it would have been 10pm, your daughter would’ve been hungry and tired and you most likely would’ve made a “no go” decision anyway.

    Keep flying and good luck on that commercial rating!

    • Thanks Jay! You’re right that I just couldn’t quite come to grips with zero oil, which ended up being correct, and right about the ever decreasing state of my daughter’s attitude as the night wore on! Hoping to add commercial by early next year. Life necessitates a break til after the holidays unfortunately.

  • Echoing the comments of others: absolutely the right decision! I have made those decisions on several occasions, always erring to the side of safety. A 200-mile drive home (and later, back) in a rented car gave me plenty of time to second-guess my decision to leave my plane on the ground, due to my uncertainty about the icing level. But later I always feel good about those decisions.

    Thanks for the post. It was enjoyable and affirming.

    • Thanks John. Living down here, icing is almost never an issue, so I second the decision you made too! Truly though, I’ve found a lot of value in all the feedback. You should consider writing your “no go” story up. I’d love to read your thought process!

  • This. As a Human Factors guy I am uninterested in what the facts eventually proved to be – only what the pilot knew at the time. You displayed awesome decision making. Alright – so your input data were wrong – so what – it happens. Based on what you had – you nailed it. Do not take off – no matter what the pressures. And as some have commented already – do NOT feel embarrassed. It vastly increases the chance of a future poor decision – and we as fellow aviators contribute to poor safety practices if we rib you about it. Dead children aren’t funny – and your decision was first and foremost about her life. You totally made the right call. Lastly – never second guess a no go decision. It’s made – and that’s final.

    • I think the part about never second guessing a no go resonates the most. How often do we call off a flight, usually due to weather, and then stare skyward wondering if we could have gone. Thanks for the encouragement and positive feedback!

  • All comments are valid. My work-around to the nearly invisible fresh oil on a dipstick is:-
    after wiping the dipstick clean, do check for the presence of oil on the cloth ,but to actually see the oil, merely apply your spittle onto the dipstick & voila ! It becomes visible!

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