A stupid decision: ignoring the oil pressure gauge

I guess that it’s OK to tell this story now. Whatever statute of limitations there may have been on any of these dumb events must have long-since expired. It’s still just as stupid today as it was back then. And stupidity surely plays a major role in many (most?) of the accident reports that I read today.

I got my private pilot certificate while I was in the Army. The base flying clubs offered camaraderie and really cheap flying. I wasn’t an Army pilot, but I used my GI Bill benefits to pick up a handful of other ratings after I got out, including commercial, multiengine and CFI-A&I. That’s enough ratings to know better than to do what I’m about to describe.

I had another professional career so I wasn’t able to do any serious instructing, just some odds and ends with the flying club that I belonged to (a club that was organized in 1952 and still exists today). I flew some for business when I could, but the trip that I’m going to describe was entirely a pleasure trip… or at least, it was supposed to be.

My wife and I had decided to take a short vacation from our home base, Fort Wayne, Indiana (FWA), around Lakes Superior and Michigan and then down past Chicago and back home. I had flown fairly extensively in Canada, so the international aspects of the trip were of no concern to us. It would be a nice trip and get me a little flying time. I had owned one-half of 05F for about 10 years at that point. The Piper Dakota had served us well and continued to do so for many years until medical problems intervened.

Oil pressure gauge
When the oil pressure gauge doesn’t show what you want to see, do you just ignore it?

The weather was good on the day of my “learning event.” We were returning home from our trip, having spent the last two nights in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. We had journeyed out to the end of the Door Peninsula and had gone out to Washington Island by ferry. The nearly three-hour trip back to FWA didn’t even begin to strain the range of 05F, which is about five hours. We had filed down the west side, just beyond Chicago’s airspace. My experience was that if you were north or west of Chicago, they were going to route you over KELSI, which was what they did. KELSI is the 058/38 off of BDF. Nowadays, T265 does the same thing, and dumps you at AHMED, about 6 nm from KELSI. What’s old is new again. We were IFR, but we had intermittent ground contact most of the way.

Passing west of Chicago, I noticed that the oil pressure was indicating a little lower than normal. No big deal; just keep an eye on it.

As we approached KELSI, I had begun to fly the airplane with one eye, keeping the other eye on the oil pressure gauge. By that point, I was pretty sure that it was a little on the low side. I monitored the rest of the gauges to see if anything would react to support the indication of reduced oil pressure, but the oil temp and CHT were right where they always were. That’s a real advantage of flying the same plane: you know where things are supposed to be. It was probably a faulty gauge since the other readings didn’t support a reading of low oil pressure.

ATC let us cut the corner at KELSI and we proceeded direct to Ft. Wayne. I was pretty sure that we did have a “small” oil problem now, but the other gauges still reported that all was well. I began to contemplate a precautionary landing, but there weren’t any decent-sized cities available and I didn’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with an AOG situation. So, we kept on trucking.

About this time, I was pretty sure that we had an oil problem, but the oil temp and CHTs all seemed OK. Besides, the idiot light for oil pressure hadn’t even blinked yet, so everything “must still be OK.” About this time, the little voice in the back of everyone’s head had begun to chide me for not landing somewhere while things were just bothersome, not really a problem yet. Of course, I overruled it. Memo for file: pay more attention to little voices in the future.

The idiot light came on just as Center handed us off to Approach at FWA. I requested a “no delay” approach and asked for the most straight in runway, even though it was rarely used by anyone. I admitted that I had an oil problem and I was immediately cleared as requested. Descent vectors got us through the broken deck and saved (thank goodness) the necessity of an instrument approach.

Dakota
Two quarts of oil is not much in a Piper Dakota.

After an eternity (or was it just a few minutes?), we landed uneventfully (whew) and taxied in under our own power. That seemed like a good idea at the time… not sure I’d do it today. The line guy guided us into parking and began gesturing wildly. I shut down immediately and got out to look around. The whole side of the airplane was covered in oil and it was dripping from under the engine cowl. Yeah, we had blown the oil cooler.

There were still two quarts of oil in the sump; we normally carried it at nine. I hope the EPA doesn’t come after me for polluting the countryside with seven quarts of oil.

The oil cooler was replaced. It sorta made me wish that we’d replaced the oil cooler at the engine overhaul, about 100 hours ago.

What would the papers have said the next morning: Local couple killed by small plane? That’s not right. It should more accurately have said: Local pilot needlessly crashes small airplane, killing himself and another innocent person.

There is a long-running column in Flying magazine called “I learned about flying from that.” In this case, I didn’t learn much about flying the airplane, but I sure did learn a lot about me. Maybe the emphasis that the feds put on aeronautical decision making is a good idea.

So what was the cause of this almost-accident?

  • Get-home-it-is? I really don’t think so. We were empty nesters, so nobody really cared when we got home.
  • Not wanting to have to deal with an AOG situation at a remote airport? Maybe. But I’ve done that a few times before.
  • Superman syndrome: it can’t happen to me? Yes it can; I’m just glad it didn’t.
  • It’s never happened to me before, so it won’t happen now? Maybe, but there’s always a first time.

Thankfully, this never rose to the level of NTSB involvement so we’ll never know what they would have said about probable cause. It’s likely a combination of all of these factors, and perhaps a few others.

I’m proud to say that in 51 years and more than 3,900 hours of flying, I never scratched an airplane. I don’t ever want to come this close again.

Editor’s Note: This article is from 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: editor@airfactsjournal.com

13 Comments

  • I’m just starting my ground training and I like to read about everyone’s mishaps. So, possibly I will adhere to everyone’s mistakes. Thank you for the great story.

  • Allways good to write and sharing stories like this one, ‘cause we learned something that sometimes we missed.

  • It has been my experience up this 67th year of my life – – -involved in aviation and flying since age 12, then Naval Aviation at age 18 to 22, a mechanic on private/corporate aircraft from age 22 into my mid thirties, my career as a Technical Writer for over 20 years at a major airline, my career as an aviation consultant dealing in the purchase of aircraft new and old, large and small, piston and jet and hi-bypass turbofan, and repair of same aircraft……………………………..that those with little or no technical background on aircraft will wonder and fritter and guess and not take seriously (“get on the ground…NOW ! “) your instruments telling you you have an upcoming problem with your engine. It’s always the straight out “I jus’ fly em’……fixin’ em is for losers” pilots wearing their ascots, who learn something like the nerd kid Erkel (“Gee….did I do that ?”) does……..and THEN takes it all seriously and we all survived because I FINALLY MADE THE CORRECT DECISION in an “I’m a hero” story like this one.

    When all of you out there quit treating the aircraft you’re going to FLY – as you would your private automobile – you wouldn’t have to write little snippet “I had an oil pressure problem that I didn’t immediately land to find out how close to failure and loss of all my lubricating life will be” stories… and do the fake “phew” while wiping off your brow when you found out what the problem was. None of you idiots deserve to die in a horrible aircraft crash……….but you idiots make it so terribly difficult to keep you out of those coffins/caskets (or earns, if you were consumed by impact explosion fire and consummation of the aircraft and you in it).

    Stop with the ” I gotta’ get there itis”…………you’ll live longer and die peacefully instead of screaming uncontrollably to ATC……………

    • We love reader comments and strong opinions at Air Facts, but the whole point of our “I Can’t Believe I Did That” series is for pilots to confess mistakes so that others can learn from them. The goal is not to brag about narrow misses but to learn, and for others to ask, “what would I do differently to make sure I don’t make a similar mistake?” That’s productive. Name-calling or dismissing stories with an “I’d never do that” are not what we’re trying to accomplish.

      • Exactly! I very much appreciate reading about others poor judgement, knowing that I’d be susceptible to the same errors and thus attempting to not repeat history.

      • O.K. John. I’ll figure out a politically correct way in this what I call Orwellian age of “Speak – Speak…be careful what you speak”……so all of you cupcakes and wall flowers and blankie holders won’t get offended…or…to avoid that we’ve stumbled into the area where the thought police will get involved. OOP’s!

        JOHN IS THE THOUGHT POLICE !

        • Cool story dude. You show up to the forums to point out other people’s mistakes, right after they’ve written a sobering column to admitting to those mistakes. What great character that takes.
          Maybe you’re a good pilot, but you sound like kind of a terrible person.

  • I believe if your Aircraft is equipped with a Hobbs meter it can be used to verify an oil pressure problem, as it is triggered with oil pressure.

  • Thx for writing for others to learn.

    I (now) fly for fun. Staring at any gage hoping for better news is not fun. Been there when we had no other options. Now that I do have other options, I land. Much more relaxing to verify condition, or if poor fuel trend, refuel. Back in the air then resumes as an enjoyable vs knuckle biting experience…and you get to log an extra landing instead someone else logging your final impact.

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