Crisis Story by Rick Pellicciotti

Sometimes when an instructor or another pilot gives you advice, you might hear yourself saying, “I’ll never have that problem” or “That won’t happen to me”. But I’m here to tell you that sometimes problems do happen. I think that instructors know that we tune them out, but they hope that when the time comes we will hear their voice in the back of our heads.

The following is an account of a recent experience of mine. I plan to take you through my thought processes and hopefully you will find it helpful.

Recently, a friend of mine purchased a homebuilt airplane, and he asked me to deliver it to him. I accepted and began planning the trip. The airplane is a Sonerai Two, a hot little Formula V racing airplane. It is powered by a 1834cc Volkswagen engine and has a top speed of about 150MPH. With only 10 gallons of fuel, the range is limited to about 200 miles.

Let’s see, Memphis to Enterprise, AL is about 330 miles. Looks like two fuel stops so we may as well make it easy on ourselves and plan 100 mile legs. This is a hot little number to land, so we need long runways. No radio, so we need uncontrolled airports. Boy, our options are getting narrow! Aha! Columbus, MS, 6000ft. runway, no tower, 125 miles, perfect! Selma, AL, 97 miles from there, 3500ft., that’s pretty good. Leaving about 100 miles to Enterprise, with two practice landings enroute before we get there and have to land in front of the proud new owner.

Everyone I ask gives me a different number for fuel burn. I hear “the voice” and decide to fly around some and get a good number before setting out on the long trip. The airplane is up at Covington, TN. I’ll go up there the day before the trip and fly it down to Twinkletown airport which is near my house. That way I can make a couple of landings and get some fuel burn figures. When I get to Covington and see the airplane for the first time I am really impressed! It is beautiful! Bright yellow with blue trim and very clean. I give it a thorough pre-flight, top off the fuel tank and with two flips of the prop, the VW roars into life. The engine purrs like a kitten after warming up. Even though it is a weekday, there is quite a crowd around the sporty little airplane. I am sure I am the envy of everyone there as I cinch down the shoulder straps and close the canopy. Arriving at the end of the 5000ft. runway, I check for traffic, pull onto the runway and ease in the power. Acceleration is good and at about 65mph, I ease her off. I let the speed build to about 80 in ground effect and then start climbing away. Climb is about 1000 FPM at 85 and this is great! I am used to flying planes that go about 100 wide open, so the adrenaline is really pumping now. Boy, those wings sure are short! Only 9ft on each side! Hearing “the voice”, I decide to keep it in close to the airport in case I have to glide back. I turn cross wind and then downwind. I lower the nose on downwind and instantly see 130mph. A 45 to the right and I am on my way. Leveling at 2500ft and reducing the power to 3000 rpm, the airplane is indicating 130 mph and my GPS reads 132mph. The air is very smooth and the Sonerai flies like it is on rails. I take the long way around the TCA. Shelby Forest, West Memphis and straight south to Walls, MS and Twinkletown airport. By the time I get there, I am loving the little airplane and don’t want to land. Maybe I am a little afraid to land. No, I just really like it up here. I circle the airport once and notice that my ride is there, so here we go. Downwind at 100, keep it in close, this thing glides like a brick. Power back now, and slowing to 75. Turning base and looking good. Too bad there’s no one around to see this! The runway ahead is 4000ft of grass, 100ft wide. I am aiming to land about 1/3 the way down so I don’t have to taxi so far. In ground effect and floating a little, hold it off. Touch down! All three wheels touch at the same time and we are rolling out straight and true. What a great little bird! I taxi to the tie-down area and shut the whirring VW down. I am very pleased. This is going to be a great trip!

That night, I pack my bag, fold my charts and double check my route in the GPS. I put the GPS and hand-held radio batteries on charge and go to bed. I sleep soundly, knowing that I have thoroughly prepared myself and the aircraft for the trip.

Morning comes with bright sunshine and singing birds. There is not a cloud in the sky, but I call to check the weather anyway. “The voice” is pleased. The forecast is VFR with puffy clouds at 5000ft. The winds are out of the east though, and this will hurt my ground speed. I call the owner of the airplane and let him know that I am on the way. I ask him to stay by the phone so that I can call him from each stop and he assures me that he will be there for me.

When I get to the airport, there is another crowd around the airplane admiring it. I hope I don’t have to deal with this at each stop or I’ll never get there! I secure my bag in the front seat and place my briefcase in the turtle deck. My GPS mounts on the canopy frame and the hand-held radio goes on the right side in a bracket. The engine starts easily and I taxi to the gas pump. The crowd follows me on foot. I top off the tank and compare the fuel total to my flying time from yesterday and get 4.3 gallons per hour. That works out to 1:45 flying time with VFR reserves and I should be able to make it in one stop. “The voice” speaks softly to me. No, I am not going to change the plan this late in the game. I’ll stick with my original plan and know that fuel will not be a problem.

After paying the fuel bill, I mount up and taxi out. The GPS says it knows where we are and the engine sounds great. There is no traffic, and we are off! I circle over the airport once while climbing to make sure everything is O.K. “The voice” approves. I give the crowd on the ground a wing-wag and turn left, on course. It’s pretty hot already and the airplane is near max gross weight with everything I have piled in it this morning. I am cruise climbing at 90 and level off at 2500ft. Power back to 3000rpm and I lean the mixture until the little VW is running smooth. Wow, a little extra weight really effects the airplane! I am only indicating 120mph and the GPS is showing 105 with the headwinds. Those short legs are looking good now! I cross the lake and continue on course. Everything looks good except the ground speed. One hour and fifteen minutes later, I have Columbus in sight and start to let down. I call my intentions to land on the unicom and notice that the wind is a 90 degree cross-wind to the runway. I enter a left downwind to the 6000ft. runway and make a very good landing. As I taxi in, a crowd begins to form in front of the FBO. Here we go again! I answer the standard list of questions. “No, I didn’t build it. Yes, it is a homebuilt. Yes, the prop does turn the wrong way. No, the Lycoming decal is a joke, it is powered with a VW”. The fuel truck arrives and I pump the gas myself. 5.1 gallons, so the fuel burn is right on the money. I pay the bill and make a call to Alabama to update my progress. Parting the crowd, I prop the VW and taxi out for departure.

This runway is 6000ft. long and I am all the way at the downwind end. Maybe I’ll depart from an intersection at mid-field. “The voice” grumbles. OK, I’ll go to the end. This sure is a great airplane. Everyone likes it. Those people back at the FBO were very nice. “The voice” grumbles again. Right, back to the business at hand. Run-up complete. Check for traffic. Canopy closed and locked. Here we go! We are off in about 700ft. and accelerating. I’ll bet those people are still out there. If I hold her down in ground effect, I should be up to about 130 or 140 by the time I get back to the other end of the runway. That would really give them a thrill! “The voice” objects very strongly. Party pooper! I ease the stick back and we are climbing smartly. When I cross the departure end of the runway, we are 1000ft above the ground and climbing. I turn crosswind and fearing that “the voice” might rumble again, I begin a turn to downwind close in to the airport. Just as I dip the left wing to turn, the engine goes very rough and then quits altogether. “The voice” is quiet, knowing that I am now fully alert. I lower the nose and continue to turn back to the departure end of the airport. I am checking the mag switches and the fuel valve. I pump the throttle a couple of times with no response. I wonder what could have happened? Maybe the tach is shorted out. Maybe I got bad fuel. “The voice” gently clears it’s throat. Oh yeah, I should be concentrating on landing right now. I call on unicom that I am landing on 18 and make a three-point landing in the first quarter of the runway after making an approach like the space shuttle. I turn off on a taxi-way and before I can call on the radio, I notice that the FBO crowd has dispatched a pick-up truck to my location.

We tow the airplane back to the hangar and I get to call the owner and tell him that his new airplane is broken. I have turned the engine over by hand and there is no compression at all on one cylinder. Much to the owner’s credit, he is mainly concerned that I am OK. He tells me to secure the airplane and he will come and get it on a trailer later in the week. The FBO personnel are very helpful in getting the airplane tied down and helping me to arrange a flight out on the commuter airline. The FBO manager is an elderly gent who has the look of being around airports for a long time. I got the feeling that he had heard “the voice” a few times himself. I said to him, “I’m sorry for all of the trouble I have caused you today”. He just smiled and said, “Hell son, we don’t often get to see a display of airmanship around here.” “The voice” had a very contented smile on it’s face. As you can see, the story has a happy ending. The airplane is not bent and my body is not broken. There were many chances however, that had I not heard “the voice”, things may have turned out much worse. I am very thankful that I have been surrounded by knowledgeable pilots and instructors who were willing to share their life-saving teachings with me. I urge you to listen to “that voice” in the back of your head when you are flying. It just might save your life.

Rick Pellicciotti