Climbing through 8,500 feet over Lake Michigan, the vibration coming from the engine cowling erupted into a full-on ruckus. The cowling was gyrating as if a wild animal was trying to get out. There was water in every direction and the Chicago skyline in the distance off the right wing.
Three hours earlier I met my Angel Flight passengers at Dayton International airport (DAY). Clear skies and a tailwind gave a predicted a flight time of 1 hour and 20 minutes to Waukegan, Illinois (UGN). At UGN we’d meet the second leg pilot, who would then fly the patient and his wife to treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
We briefed the flight and I helped them climb into the back of my 2003 Bonanza A36. After a quick radio call, we were cleared via radar vectors direct to Waukegan, and ground control gave us a short taxi to 24L. I grabbed the laminated checklist and began going through the items: oil temp and oil pressure were in the green; I had 74 usable gallons of fuel in the mains and 5 gallons in each tip tank; all doors were closed and locked; flight controls were free and proper; trim set; engine run up to 1700 RPM and cycle the propellor; mag check was good. We were ready to fly!
I confirmed that the passengers were secure and called tower: “Dayton Tower, Compassion flight 1050 holding short 24L ready for takeoff.”
Tower came right back: “Compassion 1050 cleared for takeoff runway 24L, fly heading 270.”
I rolled the Bonanza into the middle of 150 ft. wide runway and slowly advanced the throttle. After a short takeoff roll, we were flying. I retracted the gear and, climbing through 400 ft. AGL, rolled onto the assigned heading. I was instructed to call departure control.
“Columbus departure, Compassion 1050 – 1500 ft., climbing 3000.
“Compassion 1050, climb 8000, cleared direct Waukegan.”
After leveling off at 8000 ft and completing the cruise checklist, my passengers asked if they could talk now. We had a great conversation, and I learned what a difficult health struggle the patient had been dealing with over the past eight months. Initially, diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer at the age of 41, he was given only months to live. He didn’t accept that prognosis and sought a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic. He was treated with intensive chemotherapy and had almost immediate relief of his back pain caused by bone metastasis. It’s a long 9-hour drive of 550 miles to the Mayo Clinic from his home near Dayton, Ohio, so he was glad to find Angel Flight East. The mission coordinators had been arranging flights for he and his wife to get to the Mayo Clinic over the past several months.
What made this flight extra special for me was that I was the local surgeon who had performed his mediport placement for chemotherapy access. After volunteering for Angel Flight East for many years, this was the first time I had actually flown one of my own patients.
While talking with my passengers, I was also monitoring the engine monitor and other systems of the aircraft. The only anomaly I noticed was that CHT #3 was running slightly higher than normal. It was still well under the 380-degree threshold but just a little higher than it should be. I checked the outside air temperature. It was a hot day, even at 8000. I leaned the mixture a little and brought CHT#3 back into the normal range. I attributed the CHT anomaly to the hot conditions. I would find out later how wrong I was!
Handed off to South Bend approach, I was advised of a reroute and asked If I was ready to copy. I was given an additional fix to fly to and was advised that we would be flying over Lake Michigan at 4000 due to O’Hare arrivals. I had briefed my passengers on this possibility before we departed Dayton. We had a nice view of the Chicago skyline as we descended to 3000 and I picked up the ATIS at UGN. They were landing runway 23 with winds from 210 at 25 knots, gusting 36. I knew there was an AIRMET for low-level turbulence approaching the airport—we were in for a sporty approach and landing.
I was passed off to Waukegan tower and cleared for the visual. As soon as we departed the water and began flying over land it got very bumpy. I lowered the gear, which helped a little. Turning downwind, the stall warning horn began blaring intermittently. The forecasted low-level windshear was a reality. I was careful to keep the nose down and carry extra speed into the final approach. Crossing over the numbers, I slowly brought back the power and made a smooth landing. Luckily, the gusty winds were mostly aligned with the runway. Feeling relieved, I taxied to the FBO and shut down the engine. Little did I know that would be my easiest approach and landing of the day.
After a short break, I said goodbye and wished everyone a safe flight before heading back outside to the plane. I did a quick preflight, checking the oil and fuel levels. I knew it would be a bumpy departure but anticipated a mostly smooth and uneventful flight back to DAY. I’ve gotten good at hot starts with this airplane and once the engine was running, I called for my clearance. After copying the clearance, I was given taxi instructions to runway 23. All systems were nominal during runup, and I was cleared for takeoff. Climbing through 3000 ft., I was asked by the departure controller if I minded flying over the lake. I accepted the routing over the lake and was told climb to 9000 and cleared direct Dayton.
As the climb continued, I sensed that something was wrong. Was it just the usual anxiety that always accompanies flying over the water or was it something real? The engine was definitely running rougher than usual. I turned on the low boost pump to get some additional cooling fuel into the cylinders, but it didn’t help. The engine continued to get rougher until it was like flying behind an out of balance washing machine filled with bricks.
I leveled at 9000 and looked around. Lake Michigan did not appear to be a good place to park the plane, so I called Chicago approach and told them I needed vectors to the nearest airport.
“Do you want to declare an emergency?” they queried.
The plane was still making power, the oil pressure was in the green, and the rumbling slightly improved when I decreased power. I said no but asked for vectors to the nearest airport. They asked if I wanted to do a 180 and return to Waukegan or go to Chicago Executive, which was somewhere off the right wing. I chose Chicago Executive and was told to turn right and descend to 4000 ft. I knew that above all else, I had to continue flying the plane. I also needed to get the ATIS at PWK and brief the approach and runway configuration for this unplanned stop at an unfamiliar airport.
The ATIS reported they were landing runway 16 and the wind was 190 at 24, gusting 32. The Chicago approach controller was awesome and got me number one to the field, but the engine seemed to be getting rougher again despite low power settings. I had the terrifying feeling that it might quit at any minute as I approached the airport. I completed the before landing checklist as I turned onto final approach and fought to keep the plane lined up with the runway while crabbed into the gusty crosswind. On short final I confirmed three green lights, indicating the gear were down and locked.
Crossing the runway threshold, I slowly brought back the power. I was high and fast and floated down the runway but thanked God as the wheels finally touched down. Tower asked where I wanted to park. I asked for progressive taxi instructions to the closest FBO. There were about ten line guys waiting outside as I taxied in. I figured they must have heard about my engine problems and rallied all available staff to help. I brought the airplane to a stop and shut down the engine, glad to be alive. As I opened the cabin door someone yelled, “Hey, why didn’t you call and let us know that you were coming?”
Since it was Memorial Day, there were no maintenance crew available on the field. Luckily, I had a friend who was able to fly up from DAY and give me a ride home. The following day I found out that cylinder #3 was cracked. I was told that it was probably minutes away from the cylinder head blowing out the side of the cowling, losing oil pressure, and destroying the engine That would have been a bad day!
In retrospect, I was glad that I made the decision to divert when I did. That decision and a little luck probably saved my life. Should I have declared an emergency? Yes! I was having a serious engine problem over a very inhospitable body of water.
- Engine trouble over Lake Michigan - October 3, 2022
- We flew a Mooney to Cuba for the weekend! - December 6, 2018
Patrick, thanks for sharing your story. This seems to be another reminder that we should take decisive action when things are “just not quite right”. It is a lot easier (and safer) to evaluate a situation on the ground rather than in the air, especially over a large lake. Blue skies!
John- Yes! When something’s not behaving as it should, land and figure it out on the ground! This is the reason I wanted to share this story! Thanks for reading!
Good not to linger over divert decision, that got you to a suitable runway.
In busy airspace, Emergency would have let you keep that 8000′ in the bank until you didn’t need it overhead the field or until you couldn’t hold altitude as a glider. ATC may have still given you a descent, but you could more easily decline it without further negotiation.
Regardless of VFR or IFR, when engine is in doubt, don’t surrender altitude until over divert and don’t be afraid to take ownership of whatever pattern/runway you need, including changing at the last minute if that’s what you need…your initial guess for an acceptable engine out glide may be wrong that day.
Rich- Thanks for making the point about not surrendering altitude until over a suitable landing spot! This is the major reason I should have declared an emergency. It was busy airspace with PWK being only 8 miles from ORD, but declaring and emergency would have given me more glide range for a longer time. Thanks for reading!
Wow! I was very personally involved in this story. UGN is my home base, and I fly my Mooney Eagle regularly for Angel Flight Central. My favorite route is along the Lakefront with a beautiful view of the Loop. Now that Meigs Field is gone, there is always the concern of a safe unscheduled landing – and, there are precious few viable options. Glad this worked out so well. And, thank you for flying for Angel Flight.
Bob- I love flying for Angel Flight! I’ve met amazing people and found it to be very rewarding! Glad you have a similar experience! The Chicago Lakefront is a beautiful route, but your right that there are not a lot of landing options especially when flying low under the Bravo. Thanks for reading! Fly safe!
I have A36TC and experiencing a similar problem. #4 cylinder shows lower temp and after leveling in cruise at 26/24 I get a slight vibration. I checked the mags L/R no change , leaned slightly no change. This vibration lasts about 10 minutes and goes away
Would appreciate advice as to cause. so far a mystery. We have checked wiring , compressions and mags still a mystery..
Taxi and take off /full power are no problem. email if you can. Paul
Paul– I’m not sure about this! Do you have an engine monitor? If so, it may be helpful to download and analyze the data. Thanks for reading!
Pat: very well done, and very well narrated. Professional flying, I would say. Come out to my winery in Xenia (Caesar Creek Vineyards LLC) and I’ll toast your skills!
I agree with Rich, however. I would have wanted to hold altitude as long as possible, particularly over the lake, but all’s well that ends well.
Thanks Walter! I will definitely take you up on the toast at your winery next time I’m down that way!
I followed a link from a Sporty’s email. To my surprise it was a story that mentions my hometown; Dayton.
I’ve since moved to Southern California.
My aviation background: I was born and raised in the birthplace of aviation; W.P.A.F.B., Dayton, Ohio. My dad was a Naval Aviator. As a teen in the mid 70’s I would walk to a little country airport (I44) and sit at the end of the runway and watch the airplanes take off and land. I’d chat with the pilots and eventually, the FBO offered me a job as a line-boy. I’d fuel and clean airplanes. While there I took some flying lessons and completed ground school. So at 15 years old, I was flying airplanes before I was driving cars :-) But life happened and I ran out of money and time. In High School, I started a vocational A&P class, but I struggled with the math and couldn’t complete the class. However, I never lost my love of aviation. I spent many a weekend at the National Museum of the USAF at W.P.A.F.B. Every year I’d attend the Dayton International Airshow.
Fast-Forward Four and a half decades later………
Towards the end of 2021, I was forced to sell my beloved ’79 MGB British Roadster. I am determined to get my Private Pilot Certificate using the funds from the sale.
I’ll be 60 years old on December 21, 2022. It’s my goal to earn my Private Pilot Certification by then.
At the beginning of 2022, I started studying/researching everything I could online in regard to getting my Private Pilot Certificate.
12Mar2022 – I enrolled in Gold Seal Online Ground School.
01Apr2022 – I passed my physical and was issued a 3rd Class Medical Certificate.
10Apr2022 – I joined Pacific Coast Flyers flying club.
19Apr2022 – I was issued a Temporary FAA Student Airmen Certificate.
19May2022 – I completed the Gold Seal Online Ground School Course.
06Jun2022 – I received my FAA Student Airmen Certificate [card].
10Jun2022 – I passed the FAA Private Pilot Written Exam. Score: 97!
23Jul2022 – First Solo
Thx for reading :-)
Beau, your PPL timeline is similar to mine! I first soloed about a week and a half ago. Good luck ! What plane are you using? I’m using warrior 151.
Hey Seth, I’m training in a Cherokee PA28-180. My checkride is Friday October 21,2022. What an adventure huh!!?? Where are you flying? I’m at F70. Take care and best of luck. Keep me posted!
Beau, what a great story! I’m so happy you are following your dream. It won’t be long before you have your ‘private’. Enjoy your new adventure to the “highest heights”!
Thx Rick! What an adventure! I’m enjoying every minute of this. Take care.
Beau! Great to hear from a fellow Daytonian! I’m glad you are pursuing your passion for aviation! Congrats on your solo! Good luck with the rest of your training! Fly safe!
Thx Patrick! I’m having the time of my life! Take care.
I share a different perspective on these stories. I’m an A&P professionally and a student pilot. It’s good that you diverted and landed safely. I would like to point out a possible problem on how you operated your engine. In the article you said you noticed #3 running hot so you leaned it until it came down. This would have put that cylinder lean of peak. That sets you up for possible detonation. Which might have lead to the crack in the cylinder. There is numerous reasons it might have been running hot. When in doubt go rich. Be safe
Whalen- This airplane has a turbonormalized engine STC by Tornado Alley. Standard operating recommendations for the STC are lean of peak operations with target TIT of 1560 for this airplane. Its great that you are working on your certificate! Thanks for reading!
Is that a Continental or Lycoming in that bird?
How is the patient? Nice story, and thanks for sharing.
Rick– Patient is doing great! Thanks for reading!
Patrick, thanks so much for sharing this story. My husband is a surgeon, and we are both pilots, flying our Mooney M20C, and C340. We both fly dog rescue for PilotsnPaws, as well as some breed specific rescues, and I fly for Lifeline. Quite a bit in common! We always learn so much from reading stories like these. You never know what challenges a flight will bring you.
Valerie- Thanks for reading my story! It’s great that you and your husband share a passion for aviation and helping those in need! So cool! Hope to see you guys on the ramp!
Fly safe- Patrick
I would download the engine analyzer data and send it to Mike Busch of SavvyAviation.com. They can pinpoint the issue if anyone can. Mike is amazing.
Mack- Savvy Breakdown Service was actually my first call after this incident! I downloaded the EDM data and uploaded it to them. The only thing they noticed was the slight increase #3CHT over the preceding few flights. They told me they are working to develop a machine learning algorithm to identify potential failures such as this one before they happen. Thanks for reading!
Good job on everything except…. as a 6,000 hr CFI who has seen some engine failures, you would have been wise to “declare” an emergency. (and yes, you agreed to this).
This WAS an emergency — single engine misbehaving over water… If that’s not an emergency, I dunno what is.
And you wrote, “The Chicago approach controller was awesome and got me number one to the field, ”
THAT’s WHY WE DECLARE, guys- it doesn’t help “us” but it helps ATC – declaring emergency is not an admission of error or weakness, it simply authorizes ATC to give you “number one” to any runway at any airport.
Later you say,
Jim- You are correct! This was definitely an emergency! Thanks for your comments!