Sunday, June 12, 2011


I don't like whining. I don't like whining when adults do it, or when I catch myself wanting to do it. I don't like whining when small children do it, and I most especially do not like it when my airplane engine does it.

Unlike small children, adults behaving same as prior, and frustrated puppies, when my airplanes whines, it means something really has gone wrong and is getting worse rapidly.

When the whining came right as I applied full power for takeoff, I thought it was electronic - it was not that far off in tone from the radio antenna that bleeds over frequencies into Birchwood's CTAF and leaves squeals and ghostly echoes of music in horrible harmonics filling every second no one's transmitting on the frequency. I was almost to the mountains when I'd troubleshot all possible electronics, and did the last thing possible - lifted my headset off my head.

The whine was definitely coming from my engine compartment, and loud. Very loud.

Right, so, FLY THE AIRPLANE. Immediate turn back to the airfield, keeping the army airfield in gliding range until the air force base's runways were in gliding range, over the highway in case I wasn't in as much range as I thought. Check all the gauges. Tell the passenger the flight is terminated, calmly, explain the problem, do not say four-letter words or anything to panic them. Call tower, inform them that we're coming right back, not yet declaring an emergency, but the engine's making a very unhappy sound (realizing it's loud enough that it's transmitting with my voice, as though I'm speaking with heavy static).

Why does the wind, which was high and gusting but still inside my personal limits, decide to start switching directions by twenty degrees and getting worse - and gusting harder - while I'm headed back unexpectedly? Why am I suddenly having trouble mentally picturing the right base I need to make for the runway? Why can't I find the very well camoflauged C-130 doing touch n' go's at the air base and intruding on my airspace the tower is warning me about, even after my passenger spotted him? Why in the whole wide world are my gauges still all showing green - oil temp, oil pressure, CHT's, Voilts, Ammeter, Fuel flow, fuel remaining, all green and good, and this would be a perfect flight if the engine would stop screaming, so what can it be that's failing?

Note to self: when a lot of my brain is locked up on monitoring all guages with the expectations of something going wrong Real Soon Now and trying hard to appear calm for the passenger, my landing skills sink to the lowest level of sloppiness I've ever allowed myself, and then go a bit lower still. Train for perfection, not good enough, because my landing skills sure didn't rise to the occasion. On the other hand, the judgement still worked - when I knew the landing was on the cusp of absolutely unsalvageable, I made the conscious decision not to turn a bad situation into a worse one. The guages were all good, so I applied power and went around. Interestingly enough., the screaming whine went away when I pulled power - and came back instantly when I re-applied power. Definitely engine, the pooor thing.

Landing number two proved that 20 knots is a good fraction of my stall speed of 28mph - the wheels were planted, and then suddenly, they weren't, anymore. I threw in too much throttle to soften the sudden descent back to earth when the gust died - and as the wind got stronger instead, and we were climbing, with the runway rapidly disappearing beneath me. Go around again. Third time was so smooth it would have been a perfect end to a flightseeing trip, which only chagrined me more for the two prior.

The whine was gone like it never happened at taxi idle, so we crept to the parking spot, shut down & tied down, and I popped the cowl. There I beheld... nothing. A perfectly normal-looking engine. No oil leaks, no loose nuts, engine mounts tight, not a single piece of stretched safety wire or chafe mark. Confused, but relieved to be down (and wired on adrenaline) I called tower and gave them my heartfelt thanks, swearing I didn't know what it was, but it was going straight back to the shop in the morning.

Given I just put in a new starter, that was the first thing I pulled the next day - and it was perfectly fine. We checked the prop - tight, but fine. I put it back on, and did a full-power static run-up, tied down. Nothing. If there's one thing I like less than problems, it's intermittent problems. Next, I pulled the alternator - and while there was nothing I could immediately point to, the gear did have a strange amount of wear for barely more than ten flight hours (it's a newly overhauled alternator.) Off to the shop - they'll bench it first thing next week.

Just when I was starting to feel a little defensive (I'm not crazy, there was a sound I can't reproduce with no obvious causes), my passenger comes up with video she shot of the flight (it was supposed to be a flightseeing trip, after all.) Note - neither my IA nor any of the A&P's, despite any jokes about "autorough", ever doubted that I had heard something unusual. I've had plenty enough condescension, derision, and outright dismissal from male car mechanics to really appreciate that when pilot says there was an unusual noise loud enough she terminated a flight immediately, people take me at my word.

My IA listened to the video, and nodded, very calmly, then began explaining the variety of things that can go wrong with an alternator, and how they lead to intermittent failure. Another A&P stopped by the computer, listened, and nodded. "Sounds like the alternator." Given the alternator's already at the shop in queue to bench-test, it'll be ready to fix Monday.

I feel better now. Given a cause, I can fix that. Hopefully this doesn't sound too much like whining to you!


  1. Heard about your flight from your passenger.

    Hearing the blow-by-blow from your end, sounds like you handled a scary situation perfectly - congrats!

    "Any landing you can walk away from..."

    OBTW, picked up a copy of Larry Correia's latest at the bookstore yesterday, saw a review on the back cover from BRM - small world!

  2. Sounds to me like you did everything right ('ceptin' maybe the landings, but weather was a factor, so there).

    I'm also glad you kept your cool; the training is doing what it's supposed to do, and since neither you nor anyone else is the worse for wear, it was a successful day.

  3. Nope, not whining... You've now experienced what you 'trained' to, and know you can handle it. And yes, as the stress level goes up, the fine motor skills degrade! Use this as a lesson learned and go on from here!