Last weekend I took a trip out of town to look at an Ercoupe that was for sale. I flew in it four times on Saturday without any problems. The first flight was the "test drive." The next flight was to a neighboring airport where I met a CFI for the third flight -- my insurance checkout. The last flight of the day was back to the airplane's home airport.
Papers were signed, money was exchanged. Congratulations, I own an airplane.
On Sunday morning the previous owner picked me up from my hotel and took me to the airport. He was a very nice guy. It's hard to be mean to someone that hands you a chunk of cash. Anyway, it was a cold morning and I was having problems getting the plane started. The engine would start but it would only run for a couple of seconds. I thought if I primed it with a few extra pumps that it would stay running long enough to really catch and keep running.
Turns out that was a bad idea. I ended up with a nice little fire under the engine on my next start attempt. Thank goodness the seller had a fire extinguisher in his hanger and we were able to put it out fairly quickly. We cleaned the air filter, wiped down the cowling, and blew the powder out of the engine compartment with compressed air. The real problem was that the main fuel valve was off. It can't be seen while seated normally in the airplane. It's located behind the panel, halfway toward the firewall. Once I turned the valve to the on position, the engine started up and kept running.
I made my radio call and taxied to the run-up area. The right mag was a little rough, but I really wanted to get out of there. At this point I'm thinking "What's the chance of anything else going wrong today? It'll be just fine." I should have known better as this is coming from a guy who got two speeding tickets on the same day.
I took off, called up approach, and initiated flight following. I climbed up to 3,000 feet and was enjoying the awesome view from the bubble canopy. I was headed home with my new plane and life was good. I passed my first checkpoint -- an airport -- and wrote down my times on the flight planning sheet. Just a couple of minutes later I started to notice a strong gas smell in the cockpit. Shortly after I saw white smoke coming from the right side of the cowling. I actually thought it was in the cabin, but looking back I'm pretty sure it was completely outside.
I turned the mags off, pulled the power out, and pushed the nose down. I reached for the master switch, but stopped short of turning it off. I remember thinking, "This is the engine, not electrical." I started looking for a clearing to land in. As my head turned left passed my shoulder I saw a runway. I was going to need some power to get there. I turned the mags on both, pushed in a little throttle, and banked hard to the left. I keyed the mic and said something like, "This is XYZ, I have smoke in the cabin and I'm going to land." I don't remember the next few radio transmissions, but along the way I hear the controller delay an arrival and clear me to land on "any runway." More or less this was being treated as an emergency even though that word was never used.
I lined up with a runway. As I got closer I could make out what appeared to be an "X" on the end of the runway. For a moment I considered landing on the closed runway, but there was another runway about 40 degrees away that I thought I could make. I changed course, made the other runway, and touched down near the midpoint. That was the most aggressive flying I've ever done in my life. I was flying fast, banking hard, and determined to get on the ground.
The controller told me that I could stay on the runway, but I was fairly certain there was no fire, so I told him that I was going to the taxiway. As I pulled off the runway the controller told me to stop and that I'd be met by emergency vehicles. I got out of the plane and looked in the engine compartment. Nothing was on fire at the moment. The fire truck pulled up. He filled out a report and invited me into his warm truck. We waited for the FBO to come over with a tug to pull my plane across the airport. At the FBO I lined up a rental car, drove home, and called it a day.
Additional Thoughts / Lessons Learned
- I should have never took off with any roughness in the mags. This would have been a link in the accident chain had something worse happened.
- Never buy a plane without a mechanic.
- It turns out the primer line was loose, it needs two spark plugs, the exhaust is loose at the cylinders, and one of the valve cover gaskets is bad. Had a mechanic checked this out, I could of had these things addressed before I attempted to fly the plane home.
- Use a checklist
- I should have used a checklist, especially with an airplane that I'm not all that familiar with. I would have noticed the fuel valve being off and probably prevented the fire.
- Never attempted a flight without a mechanic looking over the plane after an engine fire.
- There is no telling what kind of damage that could have been done. I'm no A&P and I know that.
- Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
- I remember my CFI correcting me during simulated engine outs. He would tell me, "Don't mess with the radios, fly the airplane." It turns out that must have sinked in. Only after I had a plan did I call up the controller.
- I was glad I was using fight following.
- When I did decide to communicate I had someone to talk to that could provide seperation services and line up folks on the ground that could help me when I landed.
- I was glad I didn't pull an Inhofe.
- It turns out there were two closed runways at that airport. On the way to the FBO, I saw where chunks of the runway were missing. Also, there were various other things on the closed runway that I would have hit had I landed there.
- I was glad there was a fire extinguisher near by.
- I won't be flying without a fire extinguisher. I never flew with one, but now I'll never fly without one.
- Now I understand the saying, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment!"