Eighteen months ago, I was so thrilled to have passed my aircraft technical exam with a fantastic 88%, I crowed about it on social media. One wit quipped: “I hope that 12% isn’t what you are going to need to keep you in the air one day!” It was my first out-landing with a passenger, and I was about to find out. I recalled his comment with a chill running through me.
It was a gorgeous day and I took young Ted for tea at Old Warden. I had flown there twice with James talking me through the overhead join and circuit pattern, so I felt I knew the 03 runway now.
I am very lucky, because although he’s never actually done it with me, James has been signed off to fly from the right-hand seat. He’s no instructor, but he certainly isn’t about to let our aeroplane come to any harm. Or me, for that matter! It has meant I could stretch my wings with the voice of experience next to me, even though I was always pilot in command. It’s not a bad idea to have a more experienced pilot who is ready to do a bit of mentoring go up with you and help you build your confidence.
Ted and I had enjoyed half an hour and a cuppa in the sunshine. We’d had our photo taken, chatted to some of the Shuttleworth volunteers and looked at the old warbirds. As we headed home, I had no idea that this would be the challenging bit of the trip, not the Old Warden overhead join and landing.
We had cleared the wind turbines outside the circuit and were heading due south, when I thought I heard a different hum to the engine. I listened intently, then asked Ted, who has looked after hundreds of engines himself. “Does it all sound right, Ted?” “It sounds perfect,” he assured me. I frowned. I knew something was different. I didn’t know what, but the music I usually heard through my headset had an extra hum to it. I checked the instruments, but the hum was getting more insistent now. Ted repeated his assurances, but although he may have spent his life listening to other engines, he didn’t know the sound of mine. Something was definitely wrong. It was just a question of what.
It’s quite a challenge being airborne, with all your senses on high alert and your mind in gear, trying to figure out what problem you are dealing with. What I was hearing was an exhaust nut working its way loose. “They do that all the time,” the CFI scoffed later. “Nothing to worry about.” Right now, I was another 15 minutes from home, and trying to assess what my best option was. Ted could hear it too now. I had already figured out there was an issue with our exhaust, but what were the implications for an aircraft? In a car, you could carry on driving as long as you could stand the noise, but did the same count for an aircraft engine? Was I perhaps inflicting damage on the single biggest asset in our aircraft? I consulted Ted. “Should we put it down in a field, or just push through to get it back home?” “You keep going,” he insisted.
As chance would have it, a friend had had the welding on his new exhaust crack and a section of it fall out of the sky somewhere over the A10. He had made a precautionary landing at our airfield just a week or so earlier, so I had gone through his entire Pan Pan call and drill with him. On my first call to let our airfield know I was coming in, I was told there were two in the circuit, and they were using Runway 26. “I have an engine problem,” I called, “and I am coming straight in on 03.” I wasn’t going to muck about with a complicated circuit pattern, rotor off the trees and maybe find I had a bigger problem than we thought. On the next call I was told, “The airfield is clear for you to land.” Ha! There are some plusses to having an issue with your aeroplane. We touched down and taxied to the apron, the noise now so loud no one would have been in any doubt as to what the problem was.
Did I get any sympathy? Not a drop. “Phah! It’s a nut. Happens all the time. You obviously didn’t remove the cowling to check before your flight.” Did I give myself a high five for keeping my cool and doing a greaser under stress? You bet I did. And I now check the exhaust nuts before I fly.