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Light aircraft & emergency landings

In February 2008, my partner & I were flying home to Alice Springs from Archerfield (click on the Launch button to see air navigation map) (Brisbane’s general aviation airport). We’d not long flown past Oakey when my partner asked me if I thought one of the guages was dropping. Oil pressure. And yes it was. Only slightly, but we were due to fly over the Simpson Desert (known as the “great nothingness” or the “GFA”, “great f**k all”) later in the day, close to sunset and in to the night. Having to ditch a plane at night is not good.

It’s not good for a light plane to lose oil pressure, the engine will eventually seize up (quickly) and the plane stops flying. At that point, physics being what it is, gravity takes over and the plane falls out of the sky. Rapidly.

Partner has more than 30 years flying experience, many of them as an instrument rated pilot, so I trust his judgement. We discussed landing at nearby Dalby or even the army town of Oakey. In the end we opted to turn around and head back to Archerfield to have the plane looked at by mechanics we knew and trusted. Kept our eyes on both the electronic and manual guage, re-assessing gliding distances (should they be required) as we passed over or abeam each town with an airfield.

Had just passed Toowoomba & were in to RAAF Amberley’s airspace when the oil pressure dropped alarmingly. Ten minutes flying time in to Archerfield and the tower would no doubt have given us priority at a direct approach. We could do it. Couldn’t we? One more sudden, lurching drop in the pressure and Partner called it in, alerting the RAAF controllers we needed to make a precautionary landing at their airbase. They were terrific. Bit over the top we thought with the emergency vehicle turn out, but hey, it’s good practice for them to do the drills. RAAF personnel were great, assisting us to obtain oil of a grade suitable for our aircraft. Engineer friends at Archerfield were also terrific, pointing out various tests to do prior to determining whether it was safe to fly on to Archerfield for repairs. Did the engine run ups, seemed okay, I was given the option of not completing the flight if I felt unsafe. I chose to jump in to the passenger seat. Figured if the engine seized up, we’d be at a height that would enable us to glide in to Archerfield, easy.

We made it. The engine didn’t. Costly exercise. Took months but worth it. At least we didn’t make the 6pm news. 🙂

Time passes. Partner’s chosen to have a new auto-pilot installed in Qld. It’s a 2 step exercise, this was to be step 1. Step 1 went well, albeit with the usual delays.

That brings us up to today. Partner picked up the plane from the workshop at Gympie and headed home, planning to spend the night at Longreach. Gympie doesn’t have a fuel bowser, so he needed to land for re-fueling at Roma. He discovered an oil leak. A serious one. Not at all good news on an engine barely 12 months old.  Roma no longer has aviation maintenance personnel. The closest aircraft mechanic is in St George, a half hour’s flight away in the wrong direction. He can probably risk flying the Mooney to St George in the morning, but the repairs will take time and he needs to be back home in Alice Springs by Tuesday. St George doesn’t have much in the way of public transport back to Brisbane. Partner’s spoken with a close mate, one of the tower controllers here, a former aircraft mechanic. As long as the oil leak overnight and after a full engine run  up tomorrow morning, the plane should be safe enough to fly the couple of hours back to Archerfield in Brisbane’s southern suburbs.  Partner will confirm this with his chief mechanic in Gympie  first thing in the morning (off line over the w/end).

The plan is for him to fly, following the highway. It’ll keep him within ditching distance of the airfields of the small, rural towns west of Brissy.

I trust my partner’s flying skills. He’s completed the Mooney Pilot’s Safety Program a few times in recent years. In a full scale emergency he will do the right thing and do it well no doubt (that’s a PDF link by the way).

Gotta tell you, it’s scary to be contemplating this overnight. Doubt I’ll sleep that well tonight.

Have opted not to phone the family in Brissy, they might as well get some sleep, plenty of time for me to phone them tomorrow morning. They should be used to Partner returning to their doorstep with a smile and a “hi, had a problem with the plane …”.

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