I have been an active VFR private pilot for over 50 years and logged over 3,000 hours. One major thing learned during this time is to constantly monitor the flying environment—if something is going to go wrong, it probably will happen when you least expect it.
So far, I have had to declare a flight emergency only once. This was one of those “I didn’t have a clue that was going to happen!” experiences. It was the Christmas to New Year’s break at Chadron State College at the end of 2001, so it was a good time to travel from Chadron, Nebraska, to LeMars, Iowa, to visit my mother living at an assisted living center. I talked with my sister Laure in Cedar Rapids, and she said she was also planning to visit our mother with our sister Julie (Julie was living with Laure at the time because she was experiencing terminal stomach cancer and required tube feeding and other special care).
Traveling from Cedar Rapids to LeMars would be easier with another person, so suggested I fly from Chadron to Cedar Rapids, stay overnight, and then fly my sisters to LeMars to save travel time. Laure and Julie had flown with me previously and they thought it was a good option.
I checked the weather for the four days needed to fly to Iowa, fly to visit our mother, and fly back to Chadron. A cold front with marginal weather was moving east the day of my departure with high pressure moving over the Midwest. This should work flying VFR possible. I preflighted our Cessna 175 (N7051E), departed CDR in sunshine, and flew east. Approaching the Iowa border, I flew under a cloud layer so I checked with Flight Service to verify the rest of the route to Cedar Rapids was VFR.
After topping off the tanks at Storm Lake, Iowa, I proceeded under the cloud cover and around a few snow showers on the way to Cedar Rapids. After landing I topped the tanks and tied the Cessna down in the general aviation area. Laure picked me up at the airport and I spent a pleasant evening with Laure’s family and Julie.
The next morning was very cold—I don’t remember the exact temperature but it was somewhere around the zero mark. We drove to the airport early to pull the airplane close to a plug to warm the engine, which was equipped with a Tanis heater, before starting it. We loaded the baggage and medical equipment needed and waited a while in the warmth of the airport lounge.
After a while we unplugged the Tanis heater and the engine started with no problem. I went through the radio procedures at the towered airport and was cleared to takeoff. This 175 had the Continental engine and geared prop changed out for a Lycoming O-360 and a constant speed prop, which made the takeoff roll with three people and full tanks on a very cold morning a short one.
I don’t remember if we had switched to the departure frequency, but shortly after we were in the air the windscreen started to glaze over with something and then then drops of something started running up the windscreen. The only fluid in front of us had to be OIL! I immediately declared an emergency; we had to get on the ground fast. The tower came back and told me the airspace was cleared and I could land at my discretion.
I turned the plane around and landed as quickly as possible, looking out the side windows (which were also showing streams of oil). I looked at the oil pressure gauge as we rolled off the runway and it was still in the normal range. I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to my sisters through this sudden change of flight, but they stayed calm and took the whole situation quite well.
A mechanic with the FBO informed me the seals in the constant speed prop failed and oil was dripping off the prop and the outside of the cabin area. It was a mess. The FBO had access to the needed seals, would install them, clean the oil off the plane, and have it ready for me on the day I had planned to fly home; that was huge relief. They treated me very well.
We loaded the baggage and medical supplies in Laure’s car and proceeded to drive to LeMars. Needless to say, I was not happy to be the big brother whose great idea to fly instead of drive ending suddenly because of ruptured oil seals in the prop. We made an uneventful auto trip to LeMars and had a good visit with our mother. It was also one of the last times my mother would talk with and hug Julie, which emphasized the importance of this visit. We stayed overnight and then returned to Cedar Rapids the next afternoon. Our visit was a little shorter because of driving, but it was a good experience for Mom and Julie.
The next morning was warmer when Laure drove me to the airport. I checked with the FBO and 7051E was repaired and cleaned of oil. After saying goodbye to Laure I told her again how sorry I was the flight did not work out. I talked to the mechanic who repaired my Cessna and he thought maybe I had not warmed the oil enough before taking off, causing the seals to fail. I thought about that assessment: I had taken off in very cold weather previously, but when prop seals were failing in the past, I’d started to see tracks of oil on the cowling to warn me. I paid the FBO a few hundred dollars to make 7051E airworthy, pre-flighted the airplane, and took off out of the towered airspace.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. When I was at altitude and the plane was trimmed for cruise, I rehashed this emergency event as the time passed flying over snow-covered fields. The more I thought about it the more thankful I was with the outcome.
- The seals failed soon after takeoff, so all I had to do was turn around and land. What if the failure had occurred 25 or more miles from the airport? I would have had some very stressful decisions:
- Where is the nearest airport and could I make it before losing oil pressure?
- If I can’t make it to an airport, should I land on a road, a snowy field, or another option?
- How do I get my sisters ready for an emergency landing on a field or road?
- I would need to make an emergency radio call before landing to get help quickly, especially for Julie.
- The plane was towed into a warm hanger, repaired, and cleaned up for a few hundred dollars. That was cheap.
- Making it to the nearest airport may not have had a well-supported FBO and would have had to work out the logistics of repairing the airplane and getting transportation to LeMars or Cedar Rapids.
- Worse would be landing in a snow-covered field, which might end up in a nose-over or landing on a road maybe dodging wires, mailboxes, traffic, snow piles, etc. The logistics of being found, getting transportation, and securing the plane would have really complicated the situation. If my sisters had been injured or, worse, the plane badly damaged and/or the engine ruined this could have been a crushing experience.
I flew home with a feeling of relief: my emergency had been a minor emergency!