Bad Decisions? What Would You Have Done?

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Around 20 years ago, a cold snap in the mid-southeast U.S. brought temperatures to well below freezing. The following day, my employee and I headed to the airport in midafternoon. We planned to fly our borrowed twin Commander to Milwaukee, returning it to its owner.

We walked directly to the airplane, which had not been hangared the night before. We loaded the airplane and he entered the cockpit. “Don’t we need to preheat this?” I asked. The temperature was still around 20 degrees Fahrenheit: warmer than the overnight temps, but pretty darn cold.

“Naw, let’s jus’ see if it starts.”

You may have heard an engine moan when you ask it to do something it hasn’t done before. This one moaned like a guy waking up after a bachelor party. But eventually, it started. The other engine was more reluctant, but now we had the power of the first to force the issue.

My employee had far more experience at the time, but I was multi/instrument/commercial. He did the filing, and as we taxied, I asked how he filed. It was direct. That meant we’d be flying over Lake Michigan, maybe 30 miles from the west shoreline. I think I made a mistake here. Should I have insisted we re-file over Chicago, which would mean they would send us to Rockford? We proceeded on his filed route.

So, 30 miles off the coast at 8000 feet, the OAT followed the book. It was now 25 below zero. We noticed the left engine oil pressure was steadily rising. Rising, rising. Oil began showing up on the cowling. Finally he said, “We got to shut that down.”

What seemed like a long discussion commenced, and he (being PIC and more experienced) said, “If we don’t shut that down and we blow the oil out, we won’t be able to feather it." He feathered it. And north we went.

The next argument involved our communication with Chicago. “Don’t you want to report this?”

“We’ll be OK,” he said.

Another argument: I said I wanted to proceed direct to the shoreline, declare an emergency and land. He said we should just advise them we’d like to get closer to the shoreline and get vectors to Milwaukee. I was beginning to think he had dementia or something. He made his request, and were told to “descend and maintain 4000, advise of any heading changes, cleared direct Milwaukee.”

I was shocked that he began a descent. True, the temperature problem might be alleviated somewhat, but our options after a second engine failure would not be pleasant at all. This time, there was no argument. I said, “If you’re gonna go direct Milwaukee, why the (expletive) would you want to do it at 4000? Declare an emergency and maintain 8,000.”

We declared, and they gave us direct, and asked if we wanted the equipment ready in Milwaukee.

I let him do the talking, as I was closely watching the oil pressure on the right engine. When he tidied things up with Chicago, I said, “OK. Left engine pressure too high, we shut it down. What do you want to do with the right engine? It’s redlined.”

I have rarely been this uncomfortable in the air. Too cold, one engine out, one failing, and 20 minutes to a normal touchdown if the right engine held, or a lucky deadstick to whatever airport we were near.

Maybe 20 miles out of MKE, he began a descent. That predicated the final argument. I said, “What the (expletive) are you doing?”

“Descending! What do you think I’m doing?”

“Oh, come on. Keep it at 8000 feet until we’re over the airport. I don’t want to make any power changes.”

I don’t recall whether or not he understood my logic, but he held it at 8000 feet, we circled overhead in a descent, and we landed uneventfully.

A few days later we were later told that the outside temperature coagulated the oil in both engines. I don’t know to this day if he was correct in feathering one engine, but I am glad he did not then feather the other.

So, 20 years later, I still wonder. How many mistakes led to a limping Commander arriving at MKE at 25 below zero? Did I make mistakes? Did he? How many? What would you have done?

Comments (8)

First, remember that it is most always a sequence of events. Like a domino toppling event, you only need to stop one sequence sometimes. And remember what you DID do ...insist on maintaining altitude and keep the things you had left working for you.
Working according to the rules from the start is my advise after 37+ years in professional aviation. Do not cut corners. Stick to procedures and do not take things for granted.
There are very few scenarios you will have to "improvise" your way out of. But when these occur you're much better off from a position of strength having acted acording to rules and procedures and wisdom until then...
Review every flght...there is always something to learn.

Posted by: Mauro Hernandez | October 4, 2018 6:49 AM    Report this comment

I'm still stuck on "cold enough to coagulate the oil" in engines that were running. Good lord!

What on earth did you say to the owner - "thanks for the loan - might want to keep an eye on the left engine"?

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | October 4, 2018 7:09 AM    Report this comment

There's a rule I think would have made a lot of sense here, that I follow when I'm flying with another pilot: The most scared pilot wins. A dip in Lake Michigan would have ruined everyone's day.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | October 4, 2018 8:09 AM    Report this comment

Well ... getting out of bed, strike one. Commander out in the cold, strike two. "Naw, let's jus' see if it starts". Game over!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 4, 2018 10:03 AM    Report this comment

Wow, remind me to never loan you my airplane! I wonder how many hours you took off those engines; first by the cold starts and then operating them with little lubrication because the oil coolers had frozen up. Did you even let the oil come up to operating temperature before takeoff? I think your biggest mistake was hiring that guy in the first place.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 4, 2018 11:27 AM    Report this comment

Coagulated oil? Maybe.

The symptoms also describe a frozen crankcase vent where water in the exhaust freezes in the vent tube allowing blow-by gases to pressurize the crankcase. That pressure is added to the oil pump pressure on the gauge reading. When the crankcase pressure gets high enough oil is expelled through the nose seal and shows up on the cowling.

I see little to criticize, and much to commend, in your actions that day. The only thing I might do differently - and I'm NOT a multi-engine pilot - is to restart that engine over the airport and keep it at idle during the approach. That temporary thrust might come in handy!

Posted by: kim hunter | October 4, 2018 1:02 PM    Report this comment

My practice has always been below 20 degrees or has been below 20, use preheat and a long thorough warmup after start. If the temps were down in the teens a few hours before you can bet the engine core is still in the teens. I keep a bottle of water in the hangar, if it's frozen I preheat because it's my engine and my money.

Posted by: Richard Montague | October 5, 2018 7:31 AM    Report this comment

From my perspective, once you were in the air, I think you handled everything pretty well. It sounds like your risk perspectives were way different, but you managed to work together to keep the altitude up all the way to the airport.

My main take away, based on reading other stories that ended up being accidents, is that the accident chain usually starts on the ground. In this case, there wasn't an agreed on plan on what to do when there's an engine out. That stands out as the number one thing to me. Second may have been taking off before you had movement on the oil temperature gauge, if that was done.

I agree with Kim that the oil problem could have been a frozen breather, based on a demonstration on how that happens. Water is a combustion byproduct that gets into the crankcase. The oil gets hot enough to evaporate/boil the water out. Depending on the breather tube, if it's cold the water can condense and then freeze.

Second take away is a lesson for me that if I'm flying with another pilot I want to know what their risk acceptance levels are. If they're not close to mine, I don't want to fly with them. (And I'm not saying that mine are better than anyone else's.) In the corporate world, I get that you can't do that.

Don't most twins feather with no oil pressure?

Posted by: Tom S | October 21, 2018 10:57 PM    Report this comment

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