For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a private pilot based out of the Boston area. Below is a write-up of a recent experience flying one of the 1998 Piper Arrow III’s that I fly. I have removed the aircraft’s tail number from the images, as well as edit the names of persons involved for privacy. In all the confusion, I didn’t take any photos, so I apologize for the wall of text and hope that you enjoy regardless. Above is an image of a similar Arrow III (PA28R-201) during a flight to New Haven, CT last month.
Wow, what an insane night it was.
Lest week, I missed a full day of school because of flying for the first time; but I wasn’t flying. I was lying in bed after a crazy 16 hours of running, panicking, troubleshooting, and burning through green bills faster than the Lycoming engine that powers our airplanes.
Let me start with some background.
This all began on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. After a day of classes, I met up with a close friend (let’s call him Joe) who I fly with often (he’s also a pilot). We drove up to the airport, and got in our plane. The plan was simple; fly to Lincoln Park, New Jersey to get food. The restaurant on the field is highly touted, and it was $5 burger night. It’s about 170 nautical miles from our airport. We got there after an hour and a half of flying, and got food. Not going to lie, that was some good food, and is the best burger I can remember having. Around 8pm we got back into the plane to head home.
This is where things started to go wrong.
We had trouble starting the engine before we departed our home airport, but eventually got it going under the assumption we had just over primed the engine and flooded it (basically inserted too much fuel into the engine before we tried to start it). We had the same issue in New Jersey, but the flooded start procedure wasn’t working. After five tries, she turned over, and we taxied out.
Before we take off, we do something called a run-up. In the run-up, we run the engine to 2000 RPM (this varies by plane) and test different ignition, fuel, air and electrical systems. The idea is if there are any issues, they manifest themselves on the ground and we fix/detect them before we take off.
Before I continue with the story, it’s important I provide a little info on how our engine’s ignition system works (this applies to most single-engine pistons). Our aircraft has two magnetos that provide the sparks to ignite the fuel/air mixture in the cylinders and power the engine. These magnetos (or “mags”) are necessary to make ignition completely independent from the electrical system, so our engine will continue to work even if we have a complete failure of the electrical system. There are two for redundancy; the engine will work with only one magneto functioning, but it has to work a little harder. During the run-up, we test each magneto system independently to ensure they are both working. We switch to the “Left” or “Right” mag, and observe the drop in RPM. Normally, we get an 80-100 RPM drop. The limits we are looking for is a 175 RPM drop on either mag, and both must be within 50 RPM of each other. In this case, when we switched to the right mag, we got a drop of 400 RPM, and the engine ran extremely rough.
Initially, we thought we had a deposit of carbon or lead (from the fuel) on one of the spark plugs, causing the issue. We leaned out the fuel and added power to increase engine temperature and try and burn it off. No luck. We tried four more times with no change.
So we shut down the plane and called the owner. He said to try again. We did. No change. We called him again, he said to run it at full power and lean the mixture until the engine was about to die from fuel starvation (we’d been doing this but not quite at full power). We went to start the engine. It wouldn’t catch. We tried to start it six times (the maximum limit before a 30 minute cooldown) every way we knew how. No change.
We’re stuck 200 miles from home with an engine that won’t start, bad weather rolling in, and school the next day. It’s also 9pm by now.
We needed think quickly. Joe called an Uber while I secured the plane. We called our families, as well as the owner of the airplane, and booked tickets on the last United Airlines flight home. The problem was the flight left in an hour, the Uber was 10 mins away and it was a 40 minute trip to the airport. You do the math.
Eventually, we get to Newark. The driver made good time, so we had fifteen minutes. Joe forgot he had a Swiss army knife in his flight bag, so he got detained briefly at security while I sprinted to the gate. I got there 7 minutes before the gate was supposed to close; the plane was pushing back. Turns out they can legally close the gate 15 minutes early, and they did exactly that, so we missed the flight.
Thus, Joe and I spent the next half an hour at the gate, calling every method of transportation we could think of. No one would rent a car to anyone under 20 years of age. There were no more Amtrak trains that stopped at the Newark station until the morning and the next flight wasn’t until 5:30am.
So, we re-booked on that flight and began calling hotels. The cheapest we could find a room at was $190, so we took the AirTrain to the parking garage where we could pick up the shuttle. We were about to pay for the room when we were asked if either of us were 21. In all the confusion, we had forgotten that hotels normally have a 21 year old minimum check in age. We explained the situation to the guy behind the desk, and he spoke to the manager. Luckily, they understood our situation and waived the age requirement. They also had extra toothbrushes and deodorant, which was fantastic since neither of us had packed for a night away. Around 1am I finally got to sleep…only to be woken up at 4am by my alarm to get back to the airport to go home. Half asleep, we managed to get on the flight on time and make it back to our home city around seven. Joe wanted to listen to music on the flight back but didn’t have earbuds; I mocked him endlessly for wearing his Bose A20 headset, the same one I have, which has Bluetooth, on the plane back. Having already spent around $800 on this trip home, we elected to save $40 and take the public transportation back home. We took the two different subway lines, and made it back into our neighborhood around 8:20 am. A quick ride and we were home. About 13 hours after the ordeal started, I collapsed into my bed.
I was thoroughly exhausted, but slept a lot that night and some during the day, which helped a lot. As it turns out, we had a fouled spark plug on the engine, just a huge deposit of lead which is hard (if not impossible) to burn off. It happens to the best of planes every now and then, and we made the right call. The mechanic switched it out during the day, and Joe flew down with another pilot after school, got dropped off, and flew the airplane home. Overall, it was an insane experience, and I’m glad we made the calls we did. While it was a royal pain it does make for a real good story.
I’ve had some expensive food on account of flying to other states to eat, but I can hands down say that this was the most expensive meal I’ve ever had. Kinda funny, considering it happened on $5 Burger night.