A long cross country and a lesson learned

My wife and I planned our second cross country trip this past October to Oakland, California, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to see our son’s family and our 20-month old grandson. We did the trip three years earlier in my Seneca V and looked forward to our second adventure.

The first trip west was totally amazing for a number of reasons; the most notable was there were absolutely no headwinds! None… our trip out included stops in Moline, Illinois, Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, before our final destination at Hayward, California. With no headwinds we made great time, and without making any intermediate fuel stops along the way, we saved at least $750.

Seneca
The Seneca is a great cross country airplane—assuming everything works.

The second trip started out auspiciously enough on a fine, crisp, sunny day from my home base (XLL) in Allentown, with clear skies forecasted along the route to our first stop in Louisville, Kentucky, about a three hour flight. Leveling off at 10,000 feet we were on our way and not being so blessed this time, we did have a 20-knot headwind!

About an hour into the trip I received an alert from the multifunction display that the cylinder temperatures in my left engine were into the red zone. Checking the engine monitor, I saw that my fourth cylinder was indeed well above the red line. Oh boy! I immediately pulled the throttles, enriched the mixtures and opened the left cowl flap. It didn’t take long for the temperature to drop back into normal range and so we continued on.

The airplane had just been in for an annual and my thought was that there may have been a slight obstruction in the fuel injector of the number four cylinder. Nonetheless, my wife kept an eye on the temperatures and we were both happy they were stabilized. With an hour to go until we landed at LOU, she told me the temperature on the fourth cylinder was into the red zone again. I repeated the previous routine from an hour ago and once again the temps decreased. Obviously this was an uncomfortable situation and with a little less than an hour to Louisville, I was confident we would find a mechanic who could sort out and fix whatever the problem was.

Once safely on the ground, I was put in touch with an A&P on the field who assured me he would be able to take a look at the plane the next morning. By the next afternoon, the fuel injectors were found to be free of debris and he assured me that he felt confident I should not experience the problem again, and if I did, to just continue what I had been doing. So with a sigh of relief, we took off for our next destination in Wichita, Kansas (KAAO), where we would spend the night before flying on to Moab, Utah.

This leg started off well enough until about an hour and a half into the trip it happened again! And once again, by pulling the power back and putting the mixtures full rich, things cooled off pretty rapidly. I decided to fly at 60% power with the mixtures higher than normal. When the fourth episode happened 45 minutes later, I knew I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to Wichita. So I amended my IFR flight plan and headed into Springfield, Missouri.

By now I was really curious what was going on, and particularly uneasy. Although I was getting high cylinder warnings, as fast as they came it seemed that with corrective action they decreased back to normal. So although a bit anxious, I was willing to fuel up and get into Wichita for the night. The trip from Springfield to Wichita was only about an hour and it was now getting dark. Fortunately the cylinder decided to behave, and we got into AAO without any incident. We checked into our hotel, found a place for dinner, and a had a couple of well-deserved drinks.

G1000 engine page
Those multi-point engine monitors are great, but what if they’re the problem, not the solution?

I didn’t sleep well that night thinking about all the possibilities of what was happening. It occurred to me that a cylinder should not increase 100+ degrees in less than 15 seconds and then cool back down in about the same amount of time. So the next morning I called a friend of mine who runs Lehigh Valley Avionics. I explained what was going on and questioned him if this situation was caused by my engine monitor. To my relief, he agreed with me, and for the first time in over 48 hours, I had some reprieve from all the anxiety that was building inside me, not to mention my wife. My friend explained to me what he was sure was the culprit and advised me what steps the next mechanic should take to alleviate the problem.

Our next stop was Moab, Utah, another four-hour leg, where we had planned to tour Canyonlands and Arches National Parks over the next three days. With three days on the ground it would be a perfect place to have things finally fixed now that I was quite sure what the problem was. Four hours is easily doable in my Seneca, unless of course, I had to keep the mixtures rich and run at 60% power. Although I felt that the readings I had been getting were now from a faulty probe, if the CHT red lined again I certainly couldn’t ignore the warning. And of course, two more warnings forced me to again amend my flight plan for a fuel stop in Pueblo, Colorado.

Flower Aviation is the FBO where I filled up for the next three-hour leg to Canyonlands. Although we stopped at many FBOs along the way, many not planned for, inside Flower’s building it was like taking a step back in time to how it was in the late 1800s. The place was really amazing, offering a number of amenities, friendly service, low fuel prices, and an awesome, well-stocked general store where we picked up a number of gifts for our grandson.

Fueled up and ready for the flight over the Rockies, we departed the 10,496 foot runway 8 and were immediately cleared to 16,000 feet, except that was the same time our nemesis cylinder decided to heat up again. Keeping the airspeed up while pulling the power made for a slow climb the first five thousand feet until I was able to stabilize and climb to 16,000. This was the one and only time my wife was ever afraid while flying with me. In front of us were the Rocky Mountains and it seemed like we would never get high enough to clear them. I told her that it wouldn’t be a problem and when we eventually leveled off I heard a long sigh from the right seat.

Although there was one more hot cylinder issue to deal with at 16,000 feet, we made it into CNY while the FBO was open and the mechanics on the field assured me that they would get to work on the probes first thing in the morning. During the next day, while we embarked on some great tours around this fantastic part of the country, the mechanic from Redtail Aviation, Josh Griffin, kept me up to speed on his progress. His confidence allowed me to enjoy this part of our adventure and I actually looked forward to our final destination in Oakland and a long visit with my son’s family and our grandson.

At OAK
This makes the trip worthwhile.

The four-hour trip to OAK went without any glitches and flying at 75% power again was wonderful, although it was difficult not to look at the engine gauges every five minutes. Landing in Oakland and having my son and grandson meet us at the FBO made this exasperating trip a lot more tolerable.

Looking back on everything that happened along the way, I questioned myself if continuing the trip after the first hot cylinder warning was the right thing to do. I have always been a cautious pilot and after 44 years and 3800+ hours, I have had my share of experiences that I have learned lessons from. The first time when the temp came down so quickly I figured whatever got into the fuel injector had found its way out. The second time I was only an hour away from my destination and, knowing that things were restorable, I was comfortable continuing the flight. In retrospect, I feel I made the right decision. Although the first part of this cross country was not nearly as inexpensive or enjoyable as the first one was, my great co-pilot of a wife gave a thumbs up yes when I asked her if she’d ever do it again.

14 Comments

    • Hi Ken,
      I fly a Premier Jet out of the Minneapolis area and we often fly trips to the southwestern states. The Premier has short legs when loaded with more than three people so we almost always have a fuel stop going west. Flower is always my first choice for a stop. The fuel prices are low, there is always a marshaller waiting to direct our parking on the ramp, the fuel truck pulls up immediately, they always have free snacks ranging from fresh baked cookies to hot dogs to nacho cheese chips, the interior decor is a beautiful, the restrooms are clean as a whistle, there is a great aviation themed gift shop, and best of all the staff is the friendliest and most helpful that you will ever find. It is also an easy in and out with nice long runways and avoids the busy arrival routings into Denver.

  • Thanks for the great write, scary stuff and difficult decisions!
    Can you elaborate a bit more on what exactly was wrong? Was it the CHT probe? And it did run away, and return to normal when reducing the CHT? Wow. What did the EGTs look like at this time?
    Thanks again, best regards
    Albrecht

  • I am puzzled that while the entire article revolves around the mysterious CHT problem, the writer never definitively states how it was solved. I wouldn’t have continued past the first stop in Pueblo without having the problem fixed. I’m not an A&P, but a faulty probe seems like the first thing to investigate. Basically this is a long story about faulty decision-making.

  • Enjoyed the read but flying over the Rockys with high CHT would definitely not make my day. If you lose an engine at 16,000 feet you don’t have many options. Best to stay in the lowlands until the problem is fully solved by replacing the probe or whatever has caused the high CHT. Safety first

  • As I was reading I kept thinking “bad plug”. I had many bad plugs manifest that way in a P-Baron. They wouldn’t show up in a mag test on the ground, only in flight at altitude and more so lean of peak. I took to carrying wrenches and a spare plug or two.

  • Manifold air leak? What were EGT temps doing? Oil still cool? Right-Left mag check?
    How could you definitely know it was a a CHT probe without changing or swapping probes?
    Was it worth a potentially lost engine to see your son and grandson (or maybe not)? Was this a bad case of get there itis?

  • I had to read this twice. I was looking for the lesson learned but missed it, twice. This looks like a classic case of get-there-itis. What was the lesson? That’s it’s ok to ignore repeated undiagnosed warnings and fly over mountains?

    Glad you and your wife weren’t statistics (and hope you find/found the root cause and don’t become statistics).

  • I am severely disappointed that I wasted my precious time reading this article. A useless, self engrandizing useless “lessons learned” message. The best points of this were in fact the feed back messages.

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