by Craig Petersen
What pilot doesn’t want to fly into Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during EAA AirVenture-Oshkosh? And making the flight roundtrip in a single day is tempting and doable if you are willing to limit your activities, if the weather is good, and if you don’t experience a mechanical with your plane. With a tight schedule at work, it was either fly to Oshkosh and return home in a single day, or skip the event for another year. I chose to go!
It started with my friend, Jim Wieland, asking, “How would you like to fly to the air show at Oshkosh with me and my parents in case the weather requires us to fly on instruments?” Having just passed the instrument flight checkride a few days prior, I was anxious to log some real time on instruments. “Sure, I’d love to,” I quickly replied.
It was July, 1989. The plan was for us to rent a Piper Archer II based at Iowa City, Iowa, fly to Oshkosh on a Saturday morning, view a few exhibits, stay for the air show, and then fly back that evening. Jim was working on his instrument rating at the time, and his parents had offered to help pay for the trip since they, too, wanted to see the show.
Because we read about pilots running out of gas and crashing into Lake Winnebago while waiting to be cleared to land at Oshkosh, we were a little leery of the VFR arrival procedure. We discussed the plan with our flight instructor and decided, based upon his recommendation, to land at Oshkosh IFR. Landing IFR would guarantee we could land without delay. Departing Oshkosh, however, would be a different story.
We chose to depart for Oshkosh VFR so we would have more flexibility in our departure time.
Saturday, the day of the planned flight, arrived. That morning I left for work at 4:30 am. I had requested a day off, but they were short handed so I agreed to work a half-day to help get the store set up. By the time I left work, it was already 9:00 a.m.
The weather was cloudy and cool, but nothing too severe. I met Jim and his parents at the airport. We were excited about our excursion. Jim informed me that the ceiling was about 5,000 feet in Iowa City and closer to 3,000 feet at Oshkosh, but there was no rain in the area. We figured the flight would be mostly VFR, even though we filed IFR. We agreed that Jim would log most of the flight in his logbook, and I would only log the actual IFR time while we were in clouds.
The two-hour flight out was uneventful, other than being in IFR more than we had initially hoped for. When we arrived at Oshkosh at 11:30 a.m., the ceiling was about 2300 feet. We parked the aircraft and had the lineman fill the fuel tanks to the tabs. We calculated we would have enough fuel to return to Iowa City while staying within the legal weight limits of the aircraft.
The air show had not yet started, so the four of us started to enjoy a few vendor displays in the large tents before heading over to the show line. After exiting one of the tents, we noticed it seemed to be getting a little darker and a light mist had started. The clouds were now definitely lower.
Jim and I started to get a little concerned. We realized our departure could possibly be delayed because we had not requested an IFR time slot to get out of Oshkosh. I called Flight Service to try and reserve an IFR slot, but was told that no IFR slots would be available until Sunday… 12:00 noon at the earliest.
The latest weather was reported to be 1500 overcast and 3 miles visibility – minimum VFR.
We started to plot out a plan. We figured we could try a VFR flight into the marginal weather conditions and head toward Madison, Wisconsin, 61 nm to the south. From Madison, we were hoping to file a normal IFR plan.
I wasn’t really comfortable at the thought of taking off in these conditions, but since I was supposed to be at work the next day, I felt pressure to get back home. As a new instrument-rated pilot, I was naive. We kept assuring ourselves, “If the weather holds off long enough for the air show to take place, it will be good enough for us to take off.”
The air show was scheduled to start. Just then, the announcer tells the crowd the Cessna 150 Aerobat is ready to perform a roll shortly after takeoff. Good news!
We started to make our way toward the area of the air show to take in what we could. Before we made it to the flight line, the announcer came on and said, “Everyone needs to stay clear of the area.” We knew something had happened. It turned out the Cessna 150 crashed in attempting to roll shortly after takeoff. Luckily, the pilot appeared to be uninjured. A few moments later the announcer came on again and said the air show was being cancelled for the day.
We made our way toward the FBO again to check the weather, hoping to take off, even if the weather was only marginally acceptable. A pilot walking the other direction mentioned that they were waiving the limited number of IFR flights out that had been set. He also said Flight Service was allowing people to file IFR now, even if they did not have a confirmed IFR time slot. I didn’t really believe the pilot, thinking he may be playing a nasty trick on pilots in the area. But I figured I would ask Flight Service, as I had to call to get the latest weather.
The Flight Service Station specialist I spoke with asked me where I was headed and confirmed that I could file an IFR flight plan because the air show had been canceled. After a large sigh of relief, I quickly filed and received a weather briefing.
It sounded like it would be an IFR flight most of the way, back to Iowa City, but that we should be able to get there. The four of us headed for the airplane, a little wet from now a steady rain, but happy to be heading home.
We conducted a standard preflight, climbed into the aircraft, completed the remaining checklist, then started the engine. Shortly afterwards, we turned the radio on and began to hear pilots receiving their clearances, then got ours, then turned to ground control for permission to taxi to the runway.
The controller responded with something we did not want to hear. Due to the volume of aircraft requesting to take off and the closing of the airport to any air traffic after 8:00 p.m., there would be no other aircraft allowed to take off that night unless they were presently taxiing. I asked myself, what would my flight instructor do, and then quickly keyed the mic and said I was taxiing. I was actually surprised to hear the controller come back telling me to proceed to lineup for departure.
About 45 minutes into the wait, we noticed that almost all of the aircraft were departing toward Chicago and east, rather than west as we were headed. We wondered if this was part of the reason we were able to get a clearance out.
At approximately 9:30 p.m., well after the airport was supposed to be closed, our turn finally came to take off and we all breathed a large sigh of relief that we were able to go, as we knew the airport normally closed at 8:00 p.m.
The initial take off was uneventful and we climbed to 6,000 feet on a course to Madison, before turning toward Dubuque and home to Iowa City. When we leveled off, we were no more than 50 feet above the top of the clouds and had a beautiful, clear star lit sky above.
The leg past Madison proved uneventful, but somewhere near Dubuque, the engine emitted a large “BANG!” with a sudden decrease in power from 2300 RPMs to 2100 RPMs.
Jim and I were now scrambling to figure out what just happened, but trying not to startle our passengers. I cycled the carburetor heat, thinking the power drop could be ice related as it was cold enough at our altitude and there were clouds just below us with moisture.
The engine seemed to respond with a little more power. I knew the emergency procedure was to check the magnetos using the ignition switch, but my gut told me to do nothing since the engine was still operating. I calmly transmitted to ATC that I did not want to declare an emergency, but relayed our concern.
The controller advised that Dubuque weather was currently 600 feet overcast and visibility was 1/2-mile, then asked if we wanted to divert to Madison. I knew if the engine failed, there was no chance of gliding for an ILS approach. We would also be taking a crap shot coming out of the clouds and trying to land anywhere off field without hitting anything on the ground. I radioed to the controller that power seemed to be holding and I would prefer to aim for Iowa City. The controller advised us that Iowa City weather was clear at the time with good visibility, so it reaffirmed my desire to continue with the flight. I knew if we could make a visual approach, we could fly the aircraft to a lower altitude without adjusting power.
A few miles past the Dubuque VOR, we noticed the cloud bank we were flying over had a steep bank down and we could actually see the ground to the west. We had the aircraft on a course for the Iowa City VOR and started to think we may make it. The controller handed us off to Cedar Rapids Approach and I noticed that the new controller asked us how the engine was running. The previous controller had obviously briefed him as to the situation.
I then advised the controller that I knew the tower closed at 11:30 p.m., and that it was nearing that time, so I would cancel the IFR and continue to Iowa City VFR. The controller promptly denied my request and informed me the tower would stay open until I called him on the ground at Iowa City to cancel our flight plan. I thanked him and proceeded to focus my attention on landing the airplane at Iowa City. The controller then asked if we wanted to start our decent into Iowa City. I notified the controller that I wanted to stay high for now, as I was skeptical as to what may happen when we pulled back the power.
He asked if I wanted to declare an emergency at this time, and I said no, since we are still running with power. In hindsight, I probably should have declared an emergency, so the local fire department would be ready at the airport as a precaution.
I then told Jim that I would maintain altitude and power in on our approach until we had the runway made. Jim concurred with my decision.
The controller then notified us that Iowa City was 5 miles out. I acknowledged and requested a frequency change to Iowa City unicom.
The approach and landing were fairly uneventful, other than our purposely-planned high approach and extra speed as we dove for the runway.
It was just after midnight when we landed, so we said our goodnights, then headed home.
On Monday morning, I returned to the airport to check on the plane. The aircraft would not start for the person who was scheduled to fly it on Sunday. A mechanic was called in to look at the aircraft to figure out why it would not start. It was discovered that one of the two sets of magnetos had broken during our flight. At that moment, the severity of what could have happened really sunk in.
Had Jim and I proceeded with the emergency checklist, a testing of the magnetos would have taken place. Testing the magnetos involves shutting them off and on one at a time. If we would have tested the magnetos, the engine could very well have stopped and not restarted and we would have had a true emergency on our hands. Jim and I did attend another air show together the next summer in the Quad Cities. This time we drove as it was only an hour away.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Craig Petersen is a finance manager for Works Computing, Inc. in Bloomington, Minnesota. He admits that if he had to make that flight over again, he may have handled the situation differently.
“Landing in Madison would have been smart, but we just didn’t quite feel it was critical to land since we thought the engine was getting better when we added carburetor heat,” stated Petersen. “Our denial may have been in part due to the fatigue we were fighting at the time, and so our thought was just to get home. The smart thing would have been to land, hindsight being 20/20. I did feel the pressure to get home as I was a student and had a part-time job at the time at a local grocery store, and needed to be back for the Sunday afternoon shift. Hopefully, my flight experience will encourage other pilots to think about how they would handle the situation in case it ever comes up. It may also make pilots see how all of us can get caught up in the sense of needing to get home, rather than take the time to land and make needed repairs.”