My ten-year-old son, Elias, had to wear a portable EEG for a few days in January 2019. In his words, he “looked like a mummy.” I thought getting him up in the air would help take his mind off the gauze helmet because he really loves flying and, if I’m honest, I wanted to see if taking a trip in a Cessna 172 would cause any spikes on the EEG. I’m just curious like that.
It was a colder-than-usual day and the people who reserved the airplane before us couldn’t get it started so I was happy to have a little extra time on the front end of my rental slot. I started the airplane with some external heating and minimal effort. The engine idled smoothly at the proper rpm and the run-up was textbook. After a thumbs-up from my co-captain, we taxied to runway 5 and took off from Monroe, NC (EQY) into a blissfully cold, CAVU day.
I thought our climb rate should be a little better than the VSI was indicating, especially with our bargain-basement-low density altitude. Of course, the 145hp engines in older Skyhawks are known for being anemic. That’s what I told myself, anyway. We didn’t have a problem getting up to 5,000 feet, but the airplane was tough to trim in level cruise flight. I would be a couple hundred feet above or below my target altitude between scans. The air was smooth and the barometer was high, so I chalked it up to a poor scan on my part.
We landed uneventfully in Winston-Salem (INT) – the Opposing Bases guys call it “Cigarette,” but I refuse to give them a shameless plug – and taxied back. We got our IFR clearance for home, then got on our way. Kind of.
I set the power, verified the rpm was in the green arc, and released the brakes. The airspeed wasn’t climbing as quickly as I thought it should, but I was fully enveloped in the “let’s go” mindset. We had eaten up a lot of the 6,600’ runway by the time the airplane was ready to fly, so I rotated and up we went. Barely. The tach bounced between 2100 and 2200rpm, barely into the green arc. I watched the last bit of runway disappear under us at 200 feet per minute. I pulled the carb heat knob. The engine ran a little rough for a few seconds then smoothed out. I pushed the knob back in and the engine ran at 2000 rpm. Elias knew something was wrong and asked me about it. I told him that the engine was “acting a little weird” so we were going to come back around for another landing.
We were losing engine power. I couldn’t accelerate past Vy AND maintain a climb. It was one or the other. Clarity rushed into my brain, like air into a vacuum, when I realized that I had painted myself – and one of my kids – into a corner. Don’t pull back on the yoke. There’s enough power to maintain a shallow climb at Vy. Don’t try to trade airspeed for altitude or we’ll run out of both. Just as many pilots in situations far more dire than mine have done, I reverted to my training.
A mile off the end of the runway, tower sent me over to departure. I acknowledged, then got my wits about me and told tower, “I’m having some engine weirdness and coming back to land.” I actually said “weirdness.” I have the LiveATC audio.
At 400’ AGL, while maintaining Vy, the engine wouldn’t produce more than 1,800rpm now. No matter how hard I shoved the throttle into the panel, the engine refused to give me more power. I am pretty sure I had a throttle-knob-shaped imprint in my right palm for at least a few hours.
The tower controller asked if I was declaring an emergency. I should have, but I didn’t. We made it up to 500’ AGL as we passed midfield and I decided that this was a sufficient altitude because I was keeping the runway close. The throttle was still full when I pulled the carb heat knob again. The engine ran rough for a second then smoothed out, just like before, and ran a little shy of 1,800 rpm.
I turned base just beyond the numbers and started down. I had more altitude and airspeed than I needed, but that was a happy problem. When we were over the numbers and I was satisfied that we had energy to burn, I put in thirty degrees of flaps and pulled the throttle to idle. I slipped the airplane a little and touched down gently just beyond the thousand-foot markers. I can still feel the sigh of relief.
I fully expected the engine to die on final when I pulled the throttle to idle, but, of course, it ran beautifully all the way to the FBO. A part of me wishes that the engine would have exploded on short final, so I could say, “See?! Looks like a piston rod shot through the cowling and oil is covering every square inch of the fuselage!” But that satisfaction never came. We pulled into the chocks at the FBO and I scanned the engine instruments closely. Everything looked normal.
I did a run-up at 1,700rpm. It could not have gone better. I ran the engine at full throttle. It made full power, and the tach needle was as solid as a rock. I felt like the world’s biggest sucker. A part of me felt like pulling the chocks and flying home, but another part of me, the part that reads NTSB reports regularly, decided that one attempt was enough.
I sent my friend and CFI-I a text telling him that we were stuck. He replied, “Doing a lesson in KK’s Bonanza. Need a ride?” We took them up on the offer and enjoyed the ride back home.
I’m thankful that Elias kept his cool during the whole ordeal because that allowed me to keep my cool. If he was freaking out, I’m not sure I would have been able to stay focused on maintaining Vy up to a safe altitude. My instructor spent a lot of time entertaining himself by watching me fly airplanes in very low energy states so the mushy yoke and sloppy pedals were not something I had to devote any thought to. It felt natural and it wasn’t an emergency as much as it was just another day balancing an airplane on a variably-sized pin head.
I never heard whether anything was found wrong with the engine after it was flown home a few days later. I’m prepared to accept that it was carburetor (carb) ice, only because it would explain what I was seeing to a certain degree – pun intended. The temperature at the time, according to the ATIS, was -1°C with a dewpoint of -21°C. Carb ice isn’t likely at that temp/dew point spread, but I have nothing better to pin it on.
As for Elias’s EEG, I was surprised to learn that the results didn’t show any significant data for the time we were flying. Their equipment must have been faulty. Maybe EEGs are subject to carb ice, too.