Bad Decisions? What Would You Have Done?
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?