Can an Engine Monitor Save Your Life?

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by Jeffrey Chipetine

 

A harrowing ordeal creates a customer for life for Electronics International.

 

The restoration of my R182 Skylane was proceeding as expected, and that included replacing the hazy windscreen with something that had a bit more transparency than “a pair of stove-lids,” to steal a phrase from Samuel Clemens. Sweat equity and a liberal application of dollars were slowly transforming the Ugly Duckling into something more acceptable.

Sticking out of the Skylane’s scratched windscreen was an old school rump-roast-style OAT thermometer coupled with an old bow-tie glideslope antenna at the top. The replacement plan included dispensing with both the meat stick and the formal wear.

Modern engine analyzers offer real-time six-cylinder monitoring of both EGT and CHT—lean find, OAT display, data recording, the whole nine yards. These capabilities far outstretched the simple OEM gauges and instruments installed in the Cessna R182. I unzipped the wallet, and there was much rejoicing.

High hopes always accompany that degree of financial commitment. Unfortunately, those hopes were never fully realized with this particular engine analyzer. Despite multiple repair attempts by the factory, it became obvious that I had a lemon. The last straw was when the OAT readout (the probe located in the outboard wing vent hole) started showing 190-plus degrees F in flight. I fly a lot of hard IMC, and live by the OAT gauge for many months each year.

With that malfunction, the decision to change horses was set in stone. I borrowed an old-fashioned—and still operationally flawless— vent-can OAT from a friend. It served me well while I began looking around for a more reliable instrument.

I wound up buying an MVP-50 made by Electronics International (EI). My pilots’ group and online forums like Cessna Flyer Association were replete with stories of EI’s legendary customer service. This was a leap of faith, as the MVP-50 is certified as primary for a great many required instruments. Any subsequent instrument failure would result in the grounding of the airplane.

I took a deep breath.

I insisted that the install be 100 percent clean, fresh, and asked Jeff at Craig Avionics in Concord, N.H. to take the time to do it well.

Jeff did a terrific installation for the MVP-50 in conjunction with an all-metal panel from SairCorp. From installation to acceptance flight, everything went flawlessly; all the promises made were fulfilled.

Trust is hard won, yet easily lost; I found that the reliability of the EI unit was rock solid. In the two years after the MVP-50 installation, we had grown to rely on terrific data coming through without a hitch. Reliable, flawless, comforting.

Then, on one flight, that all changed.

 

A simple mission

In August 2014, my friend David and I were seven miles north of home base, Farmingdale/Republic (KFRG), at 5,000 feet heading outbound on an IFR flight plan to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (KPOU).

Our mission was simple: pick up a friend who was leaving his airplane behind for avionics work. The flight was going along well, and we were transitioning to run the cruise checklist at the top of our climb when we took notice of an anomaly.

The MVP-50 has cautionary and master alarms lamps independent of the unit. Those lamps both came to life concurrent with the fuel pressure readout dropping to 0.2 psi and the fuel flow indicator going up to 56 gph.

It had been two years and almost 500 hours of flight time since we had transitioned to the MVP-50. My prior experience with the old monitor had me thinking, Here we go again. This is just a defective or broken probe; maybe a transducer has gone around the bend. That assumption was reinforced by the fact the engine was pulling strong without any performance changes to corroborate the wonky indication.

I ever so briefly considered continuing the flight and just keeping an eye on it. Pilots are conditioned to be mission-driven—and we had promised our friend we would pick him up in Poughkeepsie. Caution and a voice in the back of my head contradicted that fleeting idea.

The decision to turn back to Farmingdale was almost immediate. Our buddy waiting at KPOU was a professional-grade pilot, and would understand our delay. When we turned, the plan was to land back at home, take a look and find the faulty sender, have the thing fixed, and start again for Poughkeepsie to keep our appointment.

We informed New York ATC that we had a possible fuel issue, and requested a priority return. New York asked us if we were declaring an emergency.

We informed them that this was a precautionary landing due to a bad sender. Priority handling—but no emergency, please.

New York Approach did a great job. While they cleared us direct to KFRG along with a descent to 3,000, we elected to stay up at 5,000 to hold altitude—just in case something really was wrong.

David and I briefed the precautionary landing and subsequent egress: wait until the airplane stops; wait til the prop stops; don’t hit your skull on the flaps when getting out; walk quickly to the upwind side of the airplane; and make sure the other guy is standing next to you.

With the airport made, we informed ATC we were beginning our descent to 3,000 as previously cleared. New York Approach turned us over to KFRG after clearing us for the visual approach.

Republic Tower picked us up in the high right downwind for Runway 32. We reminded them we were requesting priority handling for a precautionary landing.

Cleared to 2,000 in the high right downwind, we suddenly smelled smoke. It was a rubbery acrid smell that screamed “electrical insulation”—and this again reinforced our thought that we’d boiled off a sending unit.

Of course, with smoke in the cockpit, you don’t take any chances. We declared an emergency and asked the good people at Republic Tower to roll the equipment. (If you ever wish to have an out-of-body experience while fully awake and at the controls of an airplane, asking the Tower to roll the gear and being dead-bang serious is one way to do it.)

We told Republic Tower we were going to kill the electric on our last transmission, and replied to their request for souls and fuel onboard with a curt, “Two, and forty-six gallons, Skylane Two-Lima-Charlie OUT.” (We were a little short with the tower controller, but were under some pressure at the time; we went by and apologized later in the week.)

Nothing is as threatening as an in-flight fire. After the outside skin burns through, the cabin sole is next.
Nothing is as threatening as an in-flight fire. After the outside skin burns through, the cabin sole is next.

Then, things got worse.

At 1,400 MSL and going from high right downwind to base, flames broke out in the cockpit beneath the rudder pedals under my feet. David saw the flames first and pointed my attention toward them with his index finger. Orange and blue flames were coming up just below the pedals.

We were in trouble—the worst kind. Probably every pilot has had ‘the fire dream’, and it never comes out well.

But we were not yet even close to dead. We were flying an airplane that was running well. We just didn’t know how long we’d actually been on fire.

We wondered if it would be a good idea to cut the fuel and attempt to glide in, but were concerned over the integrity of the airplane. As the engine was running strong and pulling us home—(and there is a big siren call when home field is in reach with flames at your feet)—we elected to keep the engine running and hoped the airframe would hold together long enough to get on the ground.

We were also incommunicado, because when we cut the electrical power, we not only killed off the radios, but also killed off the intercom system.

The battery puddled like wax under the extreme heat.
The battery puddled like wax under the extreme heat.
A look at the carpet shows the author and his copilot were moments away from a catastrophe.
A look at the carpet shows the author and his copilot were moments away from a catastrophe.

Now, when there’s a fire in the cockpit of a GA airplane, you really kind of need to be able to talk to the other guy stuck in there with you. We also needed electrical power for flaps, and were kind of concerned if we had burned through the hydraulic lines that power the retractable landing gear. So we flipped the master switch back on for what turned out to be the last time.

And a couple of good things happened.

 

The landing gear and the flaps both came down like clockwork. We had an all-green indication and were now on very short final for the runway. We were so close….

Concurrent with the restoration of power, the radios come back to life. KFRG Tower was still tuned in, and we heard the tower personnel informing the rescue crew that “the airplane appears to be on fire; it appears to be an engine fire.”

We landed nicely and made the first turnoff which is about a 140-degree left turn. This put the breeze at our backs and blew the flames from the engine compartment away from the exit doors.

With the prop and airplane stopped, we called for the evacuation just as it had been briefed only a scant few minutes earlier. Amazing how well that in-air briefing worked out.

 

A substantial positive trade

The airplane was a total loss despite the valiant efforts of the KFRG Ops/Fire Department. The entire underside had blowtorched through; the next layer was the aluminum skin beneath our chairs. That skin was well charred, with the carpet beneath our feet was starting to go.

Turns out a fuel fitting at the carb had broken, but not pulled away during flight. The fuel pump (coupled, as it is, to the engine) quite happily put the max fuel into the engine bay with enough still going into the carb to keep the engine running like a champ all the way to shutdown. The excess fuel, unfortunately, was vaporizing and igniting as it hit the airstream, so we had quite the little barbecue going on for a while. We were sad to lose the airplane, but it was a substantial positive trade for our two lives.

David and I have lots of time as crewmates, and when it was apparent there was a problem, we immediately clicked into emergency mode. I flew; David took care of the copilot duties. Unspoken and automatic action between a practiced crew.

I would never have intentionally put a friend in the second seat if I’d have known what was to come, but having that second accomplished hand aboard allowed me to do nothing other than fly the airplane. He’s on my “Christmas card for life” list.

The FAA investigation went without a hitch. Personal and aircraft logbooks were gone through with a fine-toothed comb by two very thorough but eminently fair gentlemen from the FSDO. (For more, see “What Story Will Your Logbooks Tell?” by this author. It was published in December 2014, and is available to members in the Online Magazines section of CessnaFlyer.org. —Ed.) A week after the event, the investigation closed.

 

Afterword

Everyone involved received cards expressing our gratitude. New York Approach, Republic Tower, Republic Fire-Rescue—and especially, Electronics International.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a bad indication on your engine monitor will be nothing more than a bad sender or a failed probe. Despite any inclination you may have to keep an eye on it, I’d urge every pilot to land and check out the anomaly.

Let the data coming through your engine monitor guide your turn back decision. One time in a hundred, it could be something far worse than a failed sender causing the alert.

Lastly, there was no “super piloting” going on in that cockpit that day. Any decent and alert pilot crew flying the fire accident flight would have lived through the event. The keys to our success were to stay calm, work the problem, and make the turn back decision at the first indication of an anomaly.

Having a great crew-mate helps, too—so pick the guy or gal you put in that seat with care. Finally, get all the help you can from ATC by declaring an emergency immediately. Those good people are our partners in safety.

There is zero doubt that the MVP-50 engine monitoring system helped saved our lives that day. Without the excellent presentation of the out-of-bounds data and the alert lamps, we very likely would have found out we were on fire somewhere over Long Island Sound.

 

Jeffrey Chipetine is an instrument-rated pilot flying since the late 1990s with over 3,600 hours in the logbook. Soon after the smoke cleared, Chipetine purchased another Cessna high-wing, this time a TR182. The restoration of that turbocharged retractable is in process, with a new panel of avionics scheduled to be installed in October 2017, and in this new aircraft, an MVP-50 from Electronics International will deliver the data once again. Send questions or comments to .

 

Resources

Electronics International Inc.

– CFA supporter

buy-ei.com

 

Craig Avionics

craigavionics.com

 

Sair Corp/Flight Boss Ltd.

saircorp.com