Engine Trouble

1976 Cessna 180J about to touch down

I remember it as if it were yesterday. Yet, it happened over 38 years ago.

It was July 4, 1978. I was a very new private pilot, not quite 18 years old, with only 2.3 more hours after earning my certificate.

My supervisor at work wanted to take pictures of some property he was looking to purchase.

When we rented the aircraft, the clouds were broken, but a little below the standard VFR altitude requirement. The forecast indicated that the weather would improve. So, I was able to file my flight plan under a Special VFR clearance.

The pre-flight went normal.

After my run-up, I was cleared for takeoff by the tower and we began our flight.

All is well, so far …

The 1977 Cessna 152 II began to make a popping noise during climb out, although irregular in rhythm. It sounded very much like backfiring. I immediately suspected engine issues, but, as I leveled off the noise disappeared.

A check of the engine instruments indicated no anomaly.

I made sure that I was not running the engine too lean by verifying that the mixture setting was on full rich. The fuel selector was in proper setting, so the engine was not being starved for fuel.

I recalled that my flight instructor communicated to me that a declaration of emergency was a serious thing, and if something should happen in the future, be sure you want to actually ‘declare’ an emergency before uttering those exact words.

So, with everything seeming to be in working order with the engine, all except the intermittent popping noise only on climb, I called back to the tower and requested a return to landing because I thought I had ‘engine trouble’.

I did not declare an emergency, but, as I would soon find out, my flight was treated as if an emergency was declared.

I was given immediate and sole access to the airspace around the airport … meaning that scheduled airlines, other commercial operations, private pilots, even the Air Guard … everybody was given second priority to my flight.

The wind direction and velocity was read out to me by the tower and I was given my choice of what runway I wanted to land on.

I chose my runway, and was then vectored to a left-hand pattern, on the downwind leg, for landing. As I began my turn from base to final, I noticed there were emergency vehicles racing toward the approach end of our runway, along a parallel taxiway.

I pointed that out to my boss, saying, “hey, something must have happened on the airfield, look!” (not realizing that their reason for action was me). And all he said was … “just get this thing on the ground.”

He wasn’t very talkative after that.

I must say, it was probably the smoothest landing I ever made. My flight instructor would have been proud.

As we were taxiing to the FBO where the plane was rented, we passed several emergency vehicles with lights flashing, and drivers glaring at me. I got the impression that they were unhappy that I ruined their Independence Day celebration … or something. Maybe they were hoping for a little more ‘action’.

Anyway, after we shut down the engine, I opened my door, then immediately a gentleman in a sedan pulled up and asked my name and contact information. I told him, then he was on his way.

I, nor my passenger, never exited the airplane.

Immediately after that, one of the FBO employees came running out and shouted, what I perceived to be a prophetic question. (The FBO usually has airfield radios running, so no doubt he heard what was going on and came out to greet us).

He asked, “Did you hear a loud banging or popping noise?”

Remember, I did not say those words over the radio to expedite my return trip to the airfield.

I replied in the affirmative.

His response …?

“You’ve got about six inches of your passenger’s seatbelt hanging out the door.”

My boss sheepishly opened his door and reigned in the tail of his seatbelt.

We closed our doors and proceeded with our flight, without event.

For every flight after that, there was to be seen, the loose end of every seatbelt INSIDE the airplane before any door was closed.

I never had engine trouble again.


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