3 min read

As student pilots, we are taught to think about “what if” and we take it seriously. What if you have an engine failure? What if your gear motor starts to burn as you break out of heavy overcast, shedding your last bit of accumulated ice and put the gear down when it is under your seat, next to a large oxygen bottle under 1700 lbs of pressure? That is another story.

Linda and I asked some friends to fly with us to Page, Arizona, and spend a few days on Lake Powell. We decided to purchase food supplies in Page to allow us to take on more fuel from our departure airport in Southern California. At the last minute, the couple called and had to cancel. I asked Linda to stop by the store and pick up supplies, anticipating time savings in Page.

I performed a pre-flight on our Cessna 182 and all was well. Linda arrived, we loaded the groceries into the back seat and launched on an IFR plan to Page. We left Chino, California, at about 2 pm. Just as we pulled out of the LA Basin and leveled off at 10,000 feet, configured the mixture and prop and set the autopilot, BAM! I lost a cylinder.

I cancelled the autopilot, scanned the gauges, looked for oil, and thereafter declared an emergency.

“SoCal, 756 declaring an emergency, we lost a cylinder.”


When you climb up to 10,000 feet in a Cessna 182, what happens to atmospheric pressure?

There was no oil anywhere. We scanned the instruments. Rescanned. Nothing was apparent and the plane was flying just fine. What happened?

SoCal answered and asked what our intentions were. I told them we lost a cylinder and needed to land at Apple Valley, about six miles in front of us, well within gliding distance.

They cleared us to Apple Valley, then asked how many souls on board and how much fuel. Then, after some investigation, me on the instruments and looking at the plane, and Linda looking around, she found the culprit.

So, here is the exchange between me (756) and ATC (SoCal):

756: “SoCal, 756, we found the problem, we are fine, and would like to re-join our IFR flight plan.”

SoCal: “756, SoCal, OK you are cleared to Page as filed.”


SoCal: “756, SO CAL, can you tell us what happened?”



756: “SoCal, 756, I would rather not.”

Now we were in the corridor of all the airliners coming into or leaving the LA Basin from the northeast. The radio was strangely quiet.

Slight pause

SoCal: “756, SoCal, you can tell us what happened or you can land Apple Valley and fill out 1,000 federal forms.”




756: “SoCal, 756, ahh, we had a bag of potato chips explode in the grocery bag in the back seat.”


SoCal: “756, SoCal (boisterous laughter in the TRACON background—however our controller had regained his composure somewhat). Thanks for (laughter) that report.”

Then the heavy metal started talking to ATC, in between their laughter. We are so glad we were able to make everyone laugh out loud that day.

David Hughes
Latest posts by David Hughes (see all)
  • Bam! - March 18, 2021
22 replies
  1. JJ
    JJ says:

    Thanks for the funny story. Robert N. Buck is rolling in his grave, most likely.

    Buck is dead now. He retired in the 1970’s after a career as a captain with TWA. He captained everything in the TWA livery from DC-2’s to 747’s, flew weather research missions and test flights for that airline. Find a copy of his book “Flying Know-How” and open it to page 108, under the topic “Who’s Boss.”

    Was the IFR clearance required to complete the flight, or was the weather such that VFR flight was possible? If VFR was possible, the pilot had a third option in dealing with this situation; “SoCal, 756. Cancel my IFR clearance.” Squawk 1200 and proceed VFR to the destination.

    There will be no “1000 forms” , contrary to the the controller’s claims. The pilot might get a call from a FSDO inspector, maybe, but then only if the controller in question gets his or her nose out of joint and decides to attempt to make a Federal case out of a pilot exercising their PIC authority.

    The people on the ground are there to help the pilot, not to heckle the pilot. Too many controllers and pilots have lost sight of this fact, today. As a CFI and retired controller it troubles me that so many of my sister and brother aviators are allowing themselves to be cowed by people on the ground who are supposed to be there to help.


      One of the stories attributed to Buck went like this, the controller was giving him a hard time. He, supposedly, said, “am I up here because you are down there or the opposite” or something like that.

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    Great story! Having experienced the loud bang myself and it was the right bank of cylinders separating from the crankcase, I was expecting a much scarier story. the funny outcome evidently relieved stress for everyone on the frequency.

  3. Greg Bloch
    Greg Bloch says:

    I saw this coming a mile away (because the same thing happened to me coming out of COS, leveling at 14,500ft). I paused for troubleshooting before talking to ATC (aviate, navigate, THEN communicate) so I determined the culprit and didn’t need to declare an emergency.

    Lucky for me, my wife always ties off the top of the plastic grocery bags so it didn’t actually rain Fritos all over the cockpit.

  4. Macon
    Macon says:

    Kinda know the feeling. Although I did once lose a cylinder for real (dropped a valve, destroyed the piston), 20 minutes out of Love field, 1:00 AM, climbing through 5,000 feet, bound for Arkansas… but all that’s “another story”, too. (Thanks to Mr. Painter who repaired it for me later.)

    Perhaps 35 or so years ago, late one afternoon I’d flown from El Dorado, AR to Monroe, LA for one of those $100 burgers. On the way home after dark, settled in at perhaps 2,000-2,500 feet all comfy and toasty-warm (it was Wintertime, and the Warrior’s heater worked well), I got that sudden, infamous “BAM!”. Accompanying the explosion, the Warrior’s cabin was instantly filled with smoke, and the mic cable was swinging wildly… and I knew that 2,500 below there were no open fields… only trees, lots of trees. Oh boy!

    But, to my surprise, a quick scan of the gauges provided no clues, and the engine still hadn’t missed a beat. Puzzle… but, something had definitely happened. The smoke cleared fairly quickly, and all seemed well, but whatever had happened definitely needed to be determined before the consequences of it became something seriously beyond my control. So, with flashlight in hand, I began a frenzied search for whatever had gone wrong to bring me and my plane into such dire peril.

    The engine was smooth, no oil on the windshield, controls still responsive, the gauges were right, no smell of electrical wires burning. Finally, I noticed the body of my butane cigarette lighter lay on the far side of the right floorboard. I picked it up and noticed the top of the lighter was missing, and the lighter was empty. So, this is what I surmised happened: I had the heater on full blast. There was a heater vent on the side of the center-tunnel, and my errant cigarette lighter had fallen on the floor beside the vent. After becoming over-heated, that lighter had reached its critical temperature, exploded, creating a bunch of smoke, and taken off like a mini-rocket firecracker, bounced off the mic cable, and finally came to rest on the far side of the cabin.

    (Once I had full confidence that I was correct in my assessment, and convinced there were no other possibilities, I could relax and laugh about it… which I did all the way home. To this day, that and other such memories brings me to a smile. Those were the days!)

    So, yes, I can sympathize (emphasize?) with the fun and excitement a dastardly bag of exploding chips can create… although, I missed out on the fun part of advertising my predicament on the radio.

    Clear skies, everyone.

  5. John Keenan
    John Keenan says:

    I had identically the same thing happen on a trip from San Jose to Tucson about 25 yrs ago. It sure gets your attention.

  6. neil cosentino
    neil cosentino says:

    Another very interesting loud explosions in the cockpit …

    I was climbing out at about 20,000 feet, just North of Chicago – in the clear on a dark moonless night. I looked over the aircraft while scanning for crossing traffic and looked at the intake of the Starboard jet engine.

    Wow! – there was a blue ten foot long Obi-Wan Kenobi like sword of brilliant blue light at 45 degree angle to our flight path – a second later a very very loud explosion…

    Everything went dark – me scrambling in the pitch dark to find my flashlight – thinking that we hit by lightning – and had lost all electric power. My next action – reset the generators.

    The aircraft was fine – it was complete darkness because I was flash blinded by the lightning strike –

  7. mark sanford
    mark sanford says:

    Heading home after electronic repairs, the initial climb was uneventful until, of course, entering the bases. That’s when I heard the ANR distorted but still recognisable sound of electronic components frying and popping somewhere under the right panel. Very distracting!

    In an attempt to localize the issue I bent over and moved my snacks and drinks out from the right seat floor, and that’s when I figured it out – stupid plastic water bottles! As the pressure changed, the plastic corrugations were making all sorts of noise!

  8. Wayne Eleazer
    Wayne Eleazer says:

    One of my professors in college, a WWII P-51 pilot, was flying his T-34 over the Midwest when he heard a large Bang.

    Very concerned, even though the airplane was flying fine, he headed for Wichita and radioed ahead to the Beech factory. After he landed they went through the airplane thoroughly, but found not one thing amiss. He never figured out what it was.

    On the other hand, on an airline flight from Santa Maria to Denver I stuck a container of that “hot brush” shaving cream, a razor, and some socks and underwear in my briefcase, figuring I would at least be able to shave and get dressed the next morning when my baggage inevitably failed to arrive. In Denver I opened the briefcase and found the shaving cream had ejected some of its contents. Always put that stuff in a plastic bag, and it would seem a slightly vented one would be best.

    • Robert
      Robert says:

      I was flying in a citation jet to Alaska over those mountains to Sitka after landing checked the ft baggage locker there was. A empty 5gal gas can all dented up lucky dident have any gas in it appettly the pressure altitude caved it in that could have been a catastrophic accident.

  9. Roger Rowlett
    Roger Rowlett says:

    Well, I managed the daily double on a flight back from Florida. On a long leg, loaded up with snacks and drinks, we filed and climbed to 10,000 feet. The chips bag went shortly after leveling at altitude. After identifying the issue (no harm no foul), my wife and copilot opened a can of Dr. Pepper for me. That managed to decorate much of the cabin area. We know better now…

  10. Rick
    Rick says:

    This story reminds me of something that happened on a commuter jet flight in New England many years ago. We were at cruising altitude when the flight attendant handed out snacks. I got a bag of potato chips and as I opened it, it made a very loud noise, much like a gun going off. I was in one of the front row seats and several passengers behind us started screaming. The flight attendant immediately got on the mic, smiled and quickly explained what happened.

  11. Dennis Pungitore
    Dennis Pungitore says:

    Thanks for the laugh. Those of us that live in Colorado are all too familiar with exploding chip bags and other altitude related issues. More than once I forgot to squeeze the air out of the shampoo bottle in my travel kit. A plastic bottle with half air and half shampoo at sea level, can mess up a shaving kit pretty effectively at altitude. I once got maced by a new jar of powdered coffee cream when I poked a hole in the foil cover. Creamora in the eyes is not a lesson soon forgotten.

  12. Michael Klein
    Michael Klein says:

    We have Bernoulli to thank for explaining the concept of lift, air, which is a fluid, moving over a wing. Let’s not forget Boyle, whose law (P1V1=P2V2) was aptly affirmed by a bag of potato chips placed on the back seat at KCNO, (elevation 650 ft.). On a cross country flight from Sacramento,CA to Cheyenne, WY, in a non-pressurized Baron 58, we decided to enjoy the pasta my wife made for our lunch. I removed the lid from the plastic Tupperware container and proceeded to add the red sauce from the aluminum water bottle. Instead of carefully opening the pop-up vent, I unscrewed the top. As we taxied up to the FBO at Cheyenne, the linemen were wide eyed as they peered at the red-liquid all over the rear windows we had not wiped down after the event.

  13. Al Steinberg
    Al Steinberg says:

    I am not a pilot, never was, never will be, but years ago on a trip with my wife as newlyweds, we were driving and had a similar “Bang” from the back of the Jeep. We stopped and looked under the hood, looked under the Jeep for maybe a blown muffler. Later, camping we found the culprit: a tube of easy bake biscuits exploded in our box of food.

  14. Dan Fregin
    Dan Fregin says:

    A lady in the management ranks of our company was waiting to board when I notice she was obviously into her 3rd trimester of pregnancy. I asked her if she had ever seen what happened to potato chip bags at altitude which she found interesting. But I said the real reason I had asked was that if she felt any type of discomfort to let me know and I would get to the nearest large airport and she laughed when she realized the reason for mentioning the chip bag thing, but assured me it would not be a problem.

  15. Norman Schippers
    Norman Schippers says:

    The bang brought back memories in the 1960s, I worked for TWA as a A&P mechanic at SFO & moonlighted as a mechanic for an FBO, and would do some charter flying. I flew C182 down fr HWD to pick up a pass at VNY and to fly back to HWD. at 7,500ft at 9pm and over the grape vine there was a loud bang that scared the STT out of me, the plane shuttered. I took my flash light and looked all a round, the insts and all were normal. I then focused on wind shield and there rt in front of me was a big red spot .I debated whether to land at FAT or continue. When I landed at Hayward I found a lot of blood on prop and vert stab. it must have been a hawk . the prop saved me and my pass. Norm Schippers ABQ

  16. Dennis Harper
    Dennis Harper says:

    ATC: Explain what happened or face writer’s cramp on landing.

    You: Ah.. there was an unexpected and sudden pressure change in a thin-walled biaxially oriented polypropylene chamber of no aeronautical significance.

  17. Bob Nicholson
    Bob Nicholson says:

    I figured it out when you didn’t want to confess to the controller what happened. I’m guessing he had an idea and had a bet with the other controllers. There is never a thousand pages of paperwork for an emergency. Thanks for the laugh for everyone.

  18. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    Glad it was something to laugh about. I’ve had so many that weren’t, a loud bang way out over the water in the middle of no where really gives a good scare.


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