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Auto-rough: An engine condition that invokes the quantum phenomenon known as “action at a distance.” In this case it is an information entanglement between a body of water and an otherwise normally operating engine. When the “auto-rough” feature is enabled, the engine senses the water below and begins to run rough or in a worrisome manner.
In Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, a cat is trapped in a box with a bit of poison. The release of the poison is controlled by a quantum process, i.e., a probability. The cat therefore exists in a quantum state, defined by probability to be both 50% dead and 50% alive. When somebody opens the box, the probability is resolved and the cat is instantly transformed to be either 100% dead or 100% alive.
I am not enough of a theoretician to explain the “how” of this physics. I only intend to describe my first-hand, empirical observation of this principle in action… from the cockpit of my single engine plane. “Sherman, set the way-back machine for July, 1989…”
For a decade including 1989, I was partnered with Jim, Jack, and Ted in a wonderful airplane, a 1981 Cessna 182 Skylane, N9130H. The partnership was a good fit for me, as Jack never flew but was masterful at maintaining the partnership’s books, and neither of the other partners were IFR-rated, thus their use of 30H was sharply constrained.
In July 1989, Linda (my wife-to-be the following summer) and I planned a trip to Cape Breton in the maritime of Canada. We loaded camping gear, pannier bags for our clothing, and our 10-speed road bikes sans front wheels so as to fit into the capacious Skylane. We launched from the Jet Aviation FBO on the civilian side of Hanscom Air Force Base (BED) in Bedford, MA. It was a nice summer day—little wind and only a few thin layers animating our climb to the northeast.
In a few hours we landed at St. John, New Brunswick, Canada (CYSJ), to clear customs. After clearing into Canada, we continued on our way across the province of Nova Scotia the long way, flying along the northern edge of the Bay of Fundy in order to stay mostly over land. Finally, we crossed to Cape Breton at Port Hawkesbury, and then turned left (north-ish) to complete the last 44 nm to our destination: Margaree (CCZ4), with its 2500-ft. asphalt runway.
Here is what the Chamber of Commerce says about this gem: “No fuel, no telephone, and some distance from accommodation.” However, it was the perfect place to safely tie down 30H and embark upon the two-wheeled portion of our adventure. Our plan was to circumnavigate Cape Breton clockwise, loosely following the Cabot Trail, over the ensuing week, stopping at whatever spot looked comfortable and/or convenient.
The pedaling was epic, the traffic almost non-existent, the scenery worth the effort. Almost as if planned, every 20 miles or so, the road would take you from the benign pedaling along the coast up a challenging climb of 1500-2000 vertical feet to the high plateau in the center of the Cape Breton.
On the ’round the island route, we touched all the highlights: Cheticamp, Pleasant Bay, Red River, the ever-popular Meat Cove (not kidding about the name), Dingwall, Ingonish, Skir Dhu, Englishtown, Baddeck, Whycocomagh and back, at long last, to Margaree. We disassembled the bikes and loaded up the plane for the trip back to the US. Our plan was to cross the Bay of Fundy at Greenwood, Nova Scotia, over the Greenwood Airport (CYZX), and make the 25nm perpendicular water crossing at 10,000 ft. With a glide ratio of about 9:1 and a ground speed of ~120 knots, we’d never be out of gliding distance during our 12.5 minute crossing. I was primarily using our NorthStar Loran receiver to navigate the route, and using the KNS 80 RNAV as a back-up for each waypoint.
Linda was casually following along on the VFR chart on her lap, as the day was severe clear. Everything looked A-OK for our passage.
As we closed on the edge of Bay of Fundy, I made a mental note of the two, long (8,000 ft.) crossing runways of Greenwood Airport as they passed directly aft and under the airplane. We were talking to a Canadian controller but there was little traffic on the frequency that day. In a minute or two we’d leave the land and go out over the cold, ever-moving water in the Bay of Fundy. I was doing my routine engine checks (EGT, oil pressure, oil temperature, RPM, manifold pressure), as we made that transition. I was also explaining to Linda about the weird phenomenon of “auto-rough,” commenting on what a strange psychological thing it was.
Sure enough, just as we crossed the shoreline at 10,000 ft., I felt 30H shudder ever so slightly. It had to be my imagination. Auto-rough never felt so real. A few seconds later, the plane shuddered again. Could it possibly be the engine gremlins playing a well-timed trick on me? I scanned the instruments for a clue, hoping to confirm it was my imagination. In the moment I thought the word “imagination,” 30H made the most violent shudder yet, and the view out the forward windscreen became fully obscured. A viscous, honey-colored fluid blurred any forward vision to blobs of color at best. No longer did I think this was my imagination!
I pitched to best glide and pulled the power back to idle to save whatever rotations I had left on the engine for a landing. I began a standard rate left turn, heading back to the beautiful airport I had spotted a few minutes earlier. We were going down, but still carrying some power. I made a radio call to the last known controller, letting him know we’d had an engine problem, were diverting from the flight plan quite intentionally. He immediately gave us vectors to the same airport to which I was turning, relaying the current weather at that station, and said he’d be standing by on frequency.
At this point, although I could see out the side windows, forward visibility was nil—just like we had a special windscreen to simulate IFR conditions rather than donning a pair of foggles. I could slew the airplane to the right and spot our new destination airport, Greenwood, out the pilot’s side window. IMHO, at that moment, I thought we had the field within range, but the tension of the situation was overwhelming. 30H continued to shudder every few seconds, like a dog shaking off water. There was still oil pressure—low, but measurable. There was a lot of oil on the windscreen. I assumed a lot more had bypassed the windscreen and the engine was not properly lubricated any longer. But I thought we had a very solid chance of making it to Greenwood.
Glancing over at Linda, I could see she was tense but still looking for traffic out her side window, as asked. The VFR sectional was now crumpled in her lap. Her hands were clasped, balled up in the center of the map. It was at that moment, the controller asked, “Do you want to declare an emergency and would you like emergency vehicles deployed to the runway?” That did it for her. The “E” word struck at her core. I said, “No emergency, thank you, and I believe we’ll make the runway,” and Linda began saying Hail Marys, one after the next. That was very disconcerting… in fact, more so than the engine dumping its oil prematurely!
By now we’d descended to about 4,000 feet and were abeam the airport. The airport is at about sea level. We had the wind information as favoring runway 26, and, with altitude to burn, we did a large, altitude scrubbing maneuver above the airport to line up for 26. Everything looked good—except that I could not see forward at all. On completing my altitude scrubbing turn, and reaching pattern altitude, I began a long, slow, slipping final. I watched the runway out of the pilot’s side window, all the way down to the numbers, then straightened the plane out to align with the runway center, and looked out the side window like it was a night landing, wheels reaching for the pavement—and with 8,000 ft. to play with, I had a large margin for error. Squeak. Bounce. Squeak. Squeak. We were down!
Idling the engine with enough power to taxi might have been ok, but in an abundance of caution, we shut it down on the runway. A maintenance guy made his way out to us and eventually we were towed to his shop. After a brief exam, we determined that the prop seal on 30H’s variable pitch prop had failed. The oil on the windscreen and cowl had spurted from that breach. There were only a couple of quarts in the sump, but we’d never reached dry and the engine temperature (EGT, oil temperature) seemed to have stayed in the range of reasonable.
It took a few days for new prop seal to arrive and for Lefty (a seemingly cruel moniker for the mechanic, as he’d lost his left arm in an accident with a prop years ago, but that’s how he introduced himself) to complete the repair. Linda and I slept in the basement of the FBO. After all, we had all our camping stuff with us, and, as yet, it had gone unused! There was some sort of a yogurt festival in Greenwood at the time, and we ate a lot of free yogurts over those few days.
When the repair was done, Lefty handed me a bill and simply said, “Goodbye.” That didn’t seem to be adequate, so I twisted his (right) arm to fly a circuit or two with me before we departed the pattern for good, just to be sure the prop was sealed and the plane no longer had the heeby-jeebies. The test flight went well. So we loaded up the plane once again and continued on our way back to the USA, conveniently clearing customs back at our home base.
AAR (After Action Report) written up in the aircraft log for N9130H so that partners Jim, Ted, and Jack (if he ever flew again) might have a fighting chance: July 31, 1989: “Auto-rough” feature disabled. The cat is 100% dead.