What’s a real emergency?

When you look at your life, you’ll notice that there are events that serve as critical junctions – events that change you from that point on. And when you are a pilot, those events can often be critical to your ongoing success in that world. I find that there’s nothing better for you than to review who you were before the event, and after the event, to better understand how you can grow from it.

This particular lesson came during a relatively long cross-country from Wyoming to Northern California. I was in VFR conditions at FL210 in my Cessna P210R, passing over the northern Nevada wilderness and watching the clouds and storms below me. I told a good friend that I would land in time for us to have lunch, I was making good time despite the slight headwinds, and things were going well.

I routinely scan my engine instruments over and over during these long flights, and I’m used to seeing everything in the green and right where it should be, and that’s the first complacent habit that almost ended up in tragedy. I recall clearly looking at the cylinder head and exhaust gas temps, happy that they were as low and steady as they should be. Fuel was where it should be. Oil temps were good. Oil pressure… well, that seemed a little low, but it was still above the color bar for the low region. I’m sure it’s fine. And I’m making good time.

A few minutes later, I scanned again. Temps were good, fuel pressure and quantity good, but there’s that oil pressure, lower still, but just a little lower. But temps are all good, maybe the gauge is misbehaving? I got a little alarmed, but the voice in the back of my head said, “There’s nowhere around here I want to land, there’s a snowstorm below me, this is not a good time for an emergency.” And the oil pressure gauge must be lying to me. Everything is green and good. Just keep going and I’ll have it looked at when I get to California.

Another five or ten minutes passed, but the oil pressure kept creeping lower and lower. My brain finally, reluctantly accepted that there was enough of an issue that I needed to land and check it out. Damn, I’m going to be late. Where am I going to find a decent place to land around this wilderness?

I finally decided that enough was enough. I declared an emergency, and Center gave me a vector towards Winnemucca (KWMC). I told them I was losing oil pressure, and sure enough, although I was still above the yellow bar, I was just above it, as low as the gauge would go. My mind was still balking: bad gauge, I know it. I’ll land somewhere and check the oil and it’ll be fine. It always was in the past 15 years of flying.

210 oil
How did that happen?

Luckily for me, the snow storm broke up as I got near KWMC, and I was able to land in clear weather with just some local snow flurries in the area. I taxied to the local FBO, shut down, and exited the aircraft, prepared to check the oil and get some fuel at the same time. When I opened the aircraft door, I realized that all my wishful thinking was just that: fantasy. Starting at the oil dipstick hatch and streaming all the way back to the tail of my beautiful and spotless airplane was a layer of my engine oil. It looked like most of it, in fact.

How could this have happened? I opened the dipstick hatch and there was the culprit – just hanging out – the darn dipstick. Only it was not all the way in the detent as it should have been. It was about an inch out of it and clearly the oil, under pressure, was being pumped out and sprayed all the way down the side of the airplane. The dipstick was not firmly plugging the hole and being held in by the clip. It had twisted about 90 degrees, and that was enough for it to pop out and spill the precious engine oil for over an hour, and the air stream over the aircraft keep the oil down where I could not see it spreading all over the side of the aircraft.

When I managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I checked the remaining oil quantity. It was just barely at the lowest side of the dipstick marking. I got lucky in a major way; it was not the gauge after all. And I landed with enough oil to keep my engine operating, but, if I flew on, I would most likely have not had any oil left in the engine.

After many paper towels, quarts of oil, and a fuel fill up, and much help from the amazing crew in KWMC, I took off for NorCal and uneventfully completed the cross-country.

What did I learn from this event and how did it change me as a pilot?

Get-there-itis is an insidious disease. I have always told myself the same old adage: I only go when it’s safe, I don’t let schedules set my priorities; that makes me a safe pilot. But the truth is that we all have motivations that can cause us to warp our priorities. In my case, I would never have let work dictate my schedule, but I wanted to impress my friend by how easily I could make it from Wyoming to have lunch with him in California, and that motivation fogged my judgment. I wanted to make it so, and refused to let reason get in my way. When an emergency was staring me in the face, I was ready to ignore it because I really wanted to get there and did not want to call my friend to admit that I was not going to be there.

The second lesson is what I call “everything is in the green complacency.” When you have looked at a set of instruments over and over again, and they are always the same, you can develop a mindset that refuses new input, which is almost what happened to me. When the instrument tried to tell me there was a problem, I just wrote it off. I was far readier to believe that the instrument was at fault rather than that it was telling the truth and I had an issue.

Finally, the feeling that what was happening was a real emergency – right there and then, my rational faculties balking at the idea that I was the one having an emergency. After 15 or more years of flying, this was not a story that I was reading in a magazine, but it was happening to me – right now – that feeling was foreign and hard to accept. I took me precious time to accept my predicament, and that precious time, spent in denial and looking for a convenient alternative, could have cost me my life.

18 Comments

  • A good, thought-provoking story. Thank you for sharing. Something similar happened to me after 15 years of flying and, in hindsight, I was stunned by the amount of data required to convince me that something was “off”. Like you, everything was in the green, just not typical. As one of my CFIs is fond of saying, “If something doesn’t look or feel right, chances are something isn’t right.” Hopefully, we’ll both be more spring-loaded to react to the unusual after our experiences.

    • You’re welcome. Long cross countries, especially those that I was doing over the same route every time, can lull one into complacency. Being “spring loaded” as you say, can be tiring on repeat journeys. How you handle it is personal, but I find that I need to find the happy spot between being complacent and being ready for action. Or I could just buy a turbine. 😉

      • Similar event while ferrying a C-180 from New Orleans to CA earlier this year. I had just stopped at Victorville, refueled, checked oil. Departed for KPVF when Joshua approach advised, “If u climb to 8.5 I can clear u through Edwards Restricted to go direct” Everything had been good for the first 14 hours, so I though why not, even though it meant flying over more “Mountainous terrain” So accepted the clearance and climbed to 8.5. After reorganizing my charts, I noticed that my track would take me right over Mohave Airport and Spaceport. I thought to myself, I’ll have to stop there someday to check it out ( I may have jinxed myself ). When I got about 5 miles out, I scanned the gauges and saw the same thing u did, oil pressure just at the low end of the green. It had been in the middle of the green throughout the the previous flight. I told Joshua approach, “I’m going to devert to Mohave, for a possible engine issue” He cleared me direct and and told me to contact tower. As I’m making the radio call, I start to bring back the power for descent when the prop stopped “dead”! I declared an “emergency” and lined up on the longest runway. I was actually to high for a straight in and had to “spiral” down. After successfully landing, I got out and tried to move the prop, couldn’t move it an inch…..turned out that the rear main failed, allowing all the oil pressure to go into the rear case, starving the engine of oil pressure
        So the moral of the story, is be careful what u wish for! Oh, by the way, Mohave is an OK place to visit, but u have to go to Victorville to rent a car………

  • I have often thought of adding an oil pressure “Idiot Light” to my airplane as a “minor alteration” to call to my attention a reduction of oil pressure. I would rather not wait until engine noises cause my feeble brain to look at the gauge. Unlike an automotive Idiot Light, which is activated only at very low (3-5 psi) pressure; switches are readily available that would trigger at a higher pressure (bottom of green?) and hopefully provide an earlier notice of a potential problem to safely get the plane and butt on the ground.

    Jerry King

    • The issue I had was not with idiot lights or even awareness of the oil pressure – it was with a reluctance to accept the facts. My point in the article was that even with all the info that was available to me, my attitude was “this CANNOT be happening” – ignoring what I know to be true because it’s highly inconvenient.

  • It sounds to me like you did a good job. While you may have been headed down the path of ignoring the issue, you caught the problem before it was too late. On the other hand some pilots have over reacted and turned a minor glitch into an emergency and accident. If I were you I would not be disappointed in my actions.

  • One of the luxuries of routinely flying the same plane is recognizing when something is different… and being able to ask yourself why. This would be a harder problem in a fleet bird, which is why it’s so important there to review maintenance logs carefully. Good call listening to the nagging voice and coming up with a plan, also good not to “do something” and make a problem worse. The get-there-itis voice will always be there, experience let’s you push it away sooner.

    Unrelated to this story, I continue to be amazed when folks say “gauges looked good” even though their performance (airspeed or climb) is down or things are making unusual sounds. Trouble-shooting on the ground or at least over a suitable runway (after an on ground check) is a lot safer.

  • Nothing wrong with an idiot light. They are called annunciator panels in the jet world and make a lot of sense. Nobody is scanning their engine instruments when flying a busy arrival or an ODP and they shouldn’t be either.
    I am always spooky every time I take the dip stick out on the plane I fly. For me, my little affectation is to lock it down, shut the door, THEN open the door back up and recheck it.
    It makes me remember that I did it even if it’s slightly silly. Maybe BECAUSE it’s slightly silly.

    • Agree with you on the dip stick thing. My own OCD pathology is the pull hard on the dipstick 3 times and count it out loud after reinserting it before closing the hatch. I’ve heard to many stories about dip sticks “popping out” resulting in engine failure. I have the same pathology about fuel caps for that matter….

  • Lessons learned #4: Preflight must be done correctly, not rushed, especially with the simple things like putting the dipstick back into position the correct way.

  • “Idiot lights” are wonderful, not just because they can call your attention to something you might have missed, but because they add a level of redundancy. In the article, the author initially thought that the gauge was acting up, and who hasn’t experience that, or at least thought they did? An independent pressure warning light, though, would immediately tell you that it isn’t just a bad gauge, but rather a critical problem that needs immediate response. Likewise, if you ever get a bad gauge stuck in the green, you’d probably never call the annunciator an “idiot” light again. 🙂

  • I had the exact same sort of thing happen to me years ago. I was flying along in my m20j ( Mooney 201). It had just had its annual. I was flying at 5500 ft and everything was solid and behaving nicely. The engine in that plane was rock solid and the gauges rarely changed. In-flight I could count on generally seeing the same technical indications. For some reason, I was lucky enough to see the oil pressure gauge flicker. I had never seen that before. I was not really sure what was happening if anything. Then within seconds it happened again. Within 3 minutes that oil temp was going up. I did not think there was a problem given that this plane has been so reliable. I thought that maybe while servicing the plane , that perhaps the gauge has been tinkered with and that all of this was erroneous. Then without warning the gauge flickered again. It was not really random any longer and I decided to get the plane on the ground. I was lucky in that I was over an airport. The plane was still flying and the engine running. Temps may have been on the rise but I was now completely focused on getting the plane on the ground. I think I was on the ground within minutes. I don’t really recall how it played out but I put the emergency code in the transponder, spoke to the tower at the airport and landed. When I arrived at the fbo it was obvious that there was a big issue as lots of folks were staring at the plane. It was covered in oil. In my case, a vacuum seal had blown as it was not installed properly during annual. I may not have been happy with the service guys but I was happy to be on the ground. Thank goodness I trusted my intuition. It would have been easy to ignore what started as a tiny change. So I might be called overly cautious, but in my case, I now recognize “change” from the expected and act on it. I learned a significant lesson that day and thankfully my predicament did not end much worse. To me, if it looks different, or feels wrong, it probably is, and my experience has taught me never to be complacent, time is critical in these situations so act before its too late.

  • Who hasn’t looked at an errant gauge and said to themselves, “something’s wrong with the gauge”? Especially when everything else looks fine, one gauge that’s out of kilter is easy to write off as a bad gauge and not an indicator of a serious problem. Been there, done that, and here’s my story:

    My airplane is a 1963 P172D with a 180 hp Lycoming CS conversion. I looked at it and flew it in Tulsa in February, solidified the deal after reviewing the logs, and picked it up in March. At the time, it had only about 930 hours on the engine. The flight home was marred by what appeared to be a major electrical glitch, but that turned out to be no more than a blown generator fuse, fixed enroute by a very helpful shop in Newton, KS.

    I took my beautiful new-to-me airplane out several times, and one day I was doing a review of commercial maneuvers when I recalled an appointment I wanted to keep. I had just come out of a spiral descent, so I was down to about 1000′ AGL. As I started to fly back to the airport, I noticed a drop in the oil pressure. OK, maybe I’d stressed the engine some during the maneuvers–maybe that was it. Nope, couldn’t be that–oil temp and single point CHT were relatively normal from my limited experience with the airplane. Must be the gauge. But I throttled back to baby the engine, so that if it was a problem, I wouldn’t exacerbate it on the short 7 mile flight back to the airport. By now the pressure gauge was not reading at all.

    Suddenly the engine sped up, indicating that the governor had lost oil pressure. I pulled all three knobs back all the way. I’d been looking for a place to land, so I’d set up a downwind to a country road I’d just crossed and had dropped 20 flaps. But as I looked at it, there were power poles nearby that were close enough to snag a wingtip. I looked to the right, and that field looked pretty soft. I looked to the left, and that field looked much better. So I turned toward it, but now I had to cross that power line in the way. So I pointed the nose at the power line, retracted the flaps again to speed up, and just before I got to the power line, I raised the nose enough to get over the power line, pulled on 40 flaps, and did the best soft field landing I’d done in the more than 3 decades I’d been flying. Somewhere in there, there was a horrible clanking, the cabin filled with oil smoke, and the prop stopped.

    Except for some cracking of the wheel pants caused by the vibrations of landing in the field, there was no damage to anything but the engine. A rod had broken and punctured the top of the case. The allegedly “bullet proof” engine was toast–only 15 hours after I’d taken off from Tulsa. Later examination indicated that apparently a main bearing had spun, preventing oil from circulating, so that the rod had frozen to the crank.

    The newly built engine installed during the next 3 months now has over 950 hours on it, and I’ve had a lot of fun with my little airplane during the past 15 1/2 years. I’ve flown it all over the country, to OSH several times, through the Rocky Mountains, and to some favorite backcountry airstrips. But I learned two powerful lessons from that event. First, trust that a gauge anomaly is probably an engine anomaly. Second, always be on the lookout for a suitable place to land.

    I think you, Gal, were incredibly fortunate that you chose, albeit somewhat belatedly, to land and check it out. You saved your engine, and you saved your airplane and possibly yourself. Good job!

  • Gal,
    Good execution. Quite commonly, the first reaction to an issue is denial and that’s where training comes in. We need to recognize right now that there’s an issue and deal with it.

    You had one other major distraction and that was the weather below that could have been a challenge to get down and find an airport.

    Back to the question… “what is a real emergency”…..
    It’s ANY TIME that there’s a question of the safe outcome of the flight or safety of the passengers and crew, no matter how slight. One can declare, figure out a plan for the emergency and if things change or improve, the emergency can be cancelled.

  • Another similar situation: A CFI was instructing in one of my C-150’s, near the approach end of the runway, when he felt a slight, short shudder. It drew him to the engine gauges where he noticed the oil pressure needle moving toward ‘0’. So he turned toward the threshold, brought the mixture to cutoff and dead-sticked to the landing. The shop found that a slightly smaller cotter key had been used on a castle nut somewhere in there and one end had worn enough to fall off and work its way to the oil pump impeller and cut a groove in its face so that it would not maintain pressure.

  • This is a very useful story; no one was hurt, the aircraft was safe, but it almost was like that. It also re-emphasises the importance of a good pre-flight service, although I’ve only every checked the dipstick when I have carried out the service; as a captain of the aircraft I’ve never even opened the hatch on my walk-round if someone else has serviced it for me.

    Finally, in the UK we call it visual meteorological conditions or VMC. VFR is the procedural rules under which I’m flying, VMC is the the cloud and visibility etc . . . Likewise with IMC and IFR. Too many people confuse the two terms.

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