MAYDAY, MAYDAY, my engine has blown up and my airplane is on fire!
By Lane Post
Dateline: Wednesday, middle of July.
I own 1/2 of a 1961 Cessna 182 which we keep at Palomar (CRQ) in Carlsbad, CA. It’s overcast with about a 1500′ ceiling and with my wife and youngest son, 18 years old, we are at the airport waiting for the clouds to break up. We’re heading to Chico State in Northern CA for freshman orientation. I’m a new VFR pilot with about 140 hours, what a great day!
About 9 AM the clouds break up and we depart heading to the coast then turn north to fly about 1 mile off the coast to stay out of restricted airspace over Camp Pendelton, my son is in the right seat, my wife is reading a book in the back. I call SoCal at 127.3 and pick up flight following, squawk xxxx. Everything’s great.
At 5500′ I point out the altimeter to my son, who has never before flown in a small plane, and explain we’re about 1 mile high and will climb to 10,500′ to get clear of the L.A. airspace. We continue to climb as I marvel at what a glorious day it is.
Somewhere south of the San Onofre Power Plant, SoCal calls with a frequency change handing me off to the next sector. As I’m about to acknowledge, my world is rocked by a huge explosion which causes the yoke to buck, the cabin begins to fill with smoke, and the plane starts to lurch wildly. I’m 1 mile over the ocean and approx. 6500′ high. The number 6 piston has just disintegrated and blown a huge hole in the engine casing. The entire engine is gone!
I open the window which clears out the smoke, the entire windshield is covered with oil and visibility is limited. Because I didn’t acknowledge, SoCal repeats handoff and I make that fateful call “SoCal, 8525T, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, my engine has blown up and my airplane is on fire!”
“How many people (souls) on board.”? “Three.” “I can direct you to Oceanside, heading 060”
I was close to panic and certain my family was dead. I knew “060” was a heading which referred to my compass but even as I stared at the compass I could not get it to register. I had already turned my plane around now heading south but could not make heads nor tails of the 060 heading. My training kicked in and I traded airspeed for altitude as I continued to try and figure out the 060 heading.
Somewhere around here I looked out my window and thru broken clouds I saw a huge “something” in the distance, I immediately radioed SoCal and asked “Is that Camp Pendleton at my 11:00”?
“Roger, do you want Camp Pendelton”?
“Affirmative, I’M GOING TO CAMP PENDELTON.”
It would not have mattered what he replied once he confirmed I was looking at an airport cause I never took my eyes off it and never even considered anything else. I was locked on an airport just a few miles away and allowed myself to start thinking we just might survive.
“Roger, 8525T cleared to Camp Pendelton, heading 120, standby….”
The 120 heading now registered although I didn’t need it cause I could see nothing but runway which was getting closer and closer.
SoCal handed me off to “Long Rifle” at Camp Pendelton and they cleared me to land. Once I got over the airport I spiraled down to my left never taking my eyes off the runway. BTW, my prop was idling/feathering since the engine blew, I had immediately pulled back the throttle to reduce the deafening metallic clanging coming from what remained of the engine and had no power.
As I descended I realized I would need to fly AWAY from the safety of the airport in able to make an approach and land. Believe it or not, this was the scariest part of the entire ordeal. I did not want to turn my back on the airport. I didn’t want to leave the safety zone but knew I must.
I headed east but because I was so scared to leave I turned base way too soon and found myself about 3500′(?) approaching a 300′ MSL threshold! I had no confidence in my ability to slip the plane, due to my inexperience and the condition of the engine, so I pointed the nose to the threshold and dove at about 3000 fpm. As I leveled out over the runway I could see all the red lights flashing from the emergency vehicles waiting at the end of the runway.
I told my son to crack open his door and both of them to put their hands on the release of their seat belts and to get out of the plane the instant it slowed down. I made a horrendous landing, way too fast, bouncing hard several times. We rolled to a stop and jumped out. The Marines were waiting to help and could not have been more accommodating. We were all fine, the plane was not structurally damaged but the engine (which had less than 500 hours) was totally gone.
The Marines said I was the first civilian to land there in almost 3 years and allowed us to keep our plane there for several months as a new engine was built, then installed. We (our mechanic) flew the plane back to Palomar many months later.
It took great courage for me to fly again after that. My confidence was completely shattered and the slightest funny sound from the engine still sends my heart right into my stomach.
I now have about 260 hours and my wife continues to fly with me. She was petrified for some time but her comfort zone slowly returned. My son just flew with me for the first time since the accident when I flew up to get him at Chico last month.
Almost 2 years have gone by to the day, since the engine blew and I continue to enjoy flying and recently went to Idaho and back, my longest trip yet. While there I flew thru Hell’s Canyon and landed on my first dirt runway. Landed at approx. 6 new airports (always a thrill) in both Idaho and Nevada and got there and back without incident.
Happy flying, hope you all enjoy the story, keep those wings level!
This story was first published on the Pilots-L mailing list reprinted with permission from the author.