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.

2 thoughts on “Non-emergencies

  1. I got to fly a twin-engine Comanche one time… The pilot and I were heading to Ada, OK and when we were on approach to land, the landing gear would not deploy. We circled around, and attempted to manually deploy the landing gear which appeared stuck. After 10 minutes of flying or so, the pilot let me fly for a little bit, while he worked on the landing gear. We ended up doing a combination jerk up and down on the wheel and used a pry bar and the gear deployed. A quick inspection by another plane in the area that came to assist, verified it was down and appears locked in position. Landing was uneventful and we parked it. Come to find out, mechanic was working on A/C issue last week and “fixed” the Breaker issue, but moving the A/C wires to another breaker/circuit. —- A safety circuit like landing gear motor…. Glad it worked out, but decided to never fly with this person again.

    David I am glad to hear your “non-emergency” worked out. I would be interested to hear the outcome as well!

  2. My non-emergency was on the last leg of my “long solo cross country”. I had come through the Banning Pass heading for El Monte when ATC had me switch frequencies. On keying the mic to acknowledge the frequency change my entire avionics stack went blank. This meant no GPS, no radios, but most importantly – no transponder (the piece of equipment that lets ATC know where I am).

    First thought was make sure the plane was flying – it was, all flight systems were go. Next was to try to see if I could bring the panel back to life. No luck. Pulled out the handheld radio and tried contacting ATC, but 5 watts through a rubber duckey antenna wasn’t going to be able to talk to Palmdale.

    So decision time. Since I had an operable transponder when I left (and I could prove it since I had been in contact with ATC for the entire flight) I was “legal” to fly into the L.A. basin. I could have talked to the various towers on the handheld as I progressed toward my destination, so someone would have known where I was as I progressed.

    But….. the sun was low in the sky, visibility was about 4 miles, and I was flying about 100 MPH. This meant if I was on a head on collision course with another plane also going 100 MPH I would have one minute to detect the plane, determine there was a problem, and take corrective action.

    About 5 miles behind me was Banning airport, and on my flight out I had noticed the runway had been recently resurfaced. It was an easy choice. Turn around and land. Close my flight plan and have them notify ATC that I had not crashed (remember i suddenly disappeared from their radar scope); notify the club maintenance director and my wife that I had had a problem, but I was safe and the plane wasn’t “broken”, just sick.

    It was close enough to rent a car and drive home. had it not been I would have found a hotel room and had the problem diagnosed in the morning.

    I’ve always believed in the adage that it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than vice versa.

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