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.
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.
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: [email protected]
- A stupid decision: ignoring the oil pressure gauge - March 6, 2019