I’ve flown about 2500 hours in small single-engine airplanes (1500 of that as an instructor). In all that time, I’ve never had a serious equipment failure, or declared an emergency [knock on wood?]. I have cut flights short and landed early (what some would call a precautionary landing). In each of those cases, I did it because I felt something wasn’t right and it was better to get on the ground and diagnose, before things potentially deteriorated to where I had fewer options. Today was one of those days…
I was flying with a student who is early in her flight training. Our start, taxi, and runup were all normal in the 180hp Cessna 172 we were flying. On our takeoff roll, the student was slow in applying full power (a common issue early in training), but as we became airborne at a normal takeoff speed, the engine still didn’t sound right (too quiet) and a glance at the gauges showed only 2100 rpm and a climb rate of around 200-300 fpm (too low for the loading and density altitude). I confirmed mixture was full rich, throttle at full power, fuel selector on both, and the mags on both, so there was nothing to do to improve our power output. I immediately called “my plane” (taking over flying responsibility from my student) and requested priority from the tower to return for landing and advised them our engine was not making full power. The controller responded quickly and directed two planes in the pattern to “break off” and cleared us to land. We executed a normal landing, taxied back, put the plane away and talked to the mechanic.
Even though I never declared an emergency, our tower controllers treat such reports like emergencies. Airport operations personnel were scrambled (they have basic rescue and firefighting equipment) and were waiting near the runway as we landed. The local fire department arrived with the hook and ladder just after we shut down. They immediately turned around and left, when advised of the current situation. Airport personnel asked us for a short report, names, and contact information and that was the extent of the “hassle” associated with my request for priority (and I’m sure would have been the same had I declared an emergency)..
After any event like this, it’s useful to evaluate and critique:
- Everything turned out fine. We didn’t panic and landed safely without any further issue, other than inconveniencing a couple of other pilots and emergency personnel.
- I feel sure that the decision to request priority was the right one. While we were climbing and the plane was otherwise ok, there is always a possibility that things will get worse. I would hate to have flown a normal pattern, get extended downwind 2 miles away from the airport and then have the engine get worse.
- Maybe I should have declared an emergency. My personal bias is to avoid that phrase where there is not immediate danger to persons or property. My request received the response I hoped for and by keeping my voice calm and avoiding the “e” word, I think it helps keep everyone else calmer. Had my request not gotten the response I wanted, I’d have no problem in declaring an emergency.
I’ll be interested to see what problem (if any) is found with the airplane and see how that influences my evaluation. It was a chance to show a student pilot how to deal with these sorts of situations.
With the few facts that are known, it seems like the recent crash in Glendale could have been averted, had the pilot executed a precautionary landing at El Monte, rather than continuing on towards Van Nuys. The pilot was lucky in this case, though the plane was not. It’s true that I had the luxury of already being at my destination airport and having no pressure to continue on. This event was in the back of my mind as I made the decision to request priority.