Give any mechanical thing a job to do and it will do it. At least for a while... Things wear out and break and then you fix them. Problems which start when you find yourself unable to fix them are another story.|
The flight started out uneventfully; two planes taxied to runway 29 at Oakland Airport and two planes took off in sequence and headed out over San Francisco Bay. Climbing slowly, with an overload of fuel, we headed out over the Bay Bridge, then the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco disappeared over my left shoulder as we turned toward Honolulu.
A good time to start a ferry flight to Hawaii is about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Takeoff is easier during the day. If you find you need to circle back for an emergency landing, daylight would be helpful. The first hour is the always the hardest. Lots of chores need to be checked off. First is establishing the climb, then establishing radio contact with departure control. They'll ask you to call ARINC and give them a test call on the HF radio. In the meantime, you need to meet the plane which departed just before you or just after you and match speeds and altitudes. Getting position reports ready for the moment radar contact is lost is always a challenge because the pencils you carefully stashed for this very moment seem to have disappeared. All of these tasks are eased by flying in daylight.
The plane is so much easier to keep right-side-up if you can see the horizon. Night and instrument flying are made possible by an artificial horizon gyro installed in the plane's instrument panel. Using it requires some concentration, some diversion of attention from the task at hand to that of staying upright. To use the real horizon requires only a glance out the window during the day.
After you are established on the airway, with the power and fuel flows set properly, it doesn't really matter if it is day or night. The workload drops to almost zero, compared to the first hour. In fact, night can actually be better than day. Once you have seen one ocean, you've seen them all. But there is no better place to watch the stars than the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night. During the night, they wheel and turn, dropping into the ocean in front of you as fresh ones appear from behind. The moon often joins in as well.
So on we continued to the southwest, over the Pacific. Hour after hour passed. The sun went down and the stars came out. Position reports went out on time; our progress was exactly as planned. All of the days gossip had been exchanged and the radio chatter slowed after midnight. All was well with the world. Until I smelled the smoke.
What can you do when you find that something in your plane is burning? Turn around? Not a good option. San Francisco was no closer than Honolulu. Use the fire extinguisher? Sorry, light aircraft don't come equipped with that sort of gear. Land in the ocean? At least the fire would be extinguished as the wreckage slipped beneath the waves. But that option would have left me without transportation and the thought of swimming one thousand miles seemed truly unpleasant.
I radioed to my companion flying close by that I smelled smoke. His suggestion was to call the fire department... I was obviously on my own. What ever happened would depend on what I could do to locate the source of the fire and stop it.
Nothing within view was burning. I could have poured drinking water or a can of soda on that fire. No smoke was rising out of the instrument panel, so turning off the radios and turning them back on, one at a time, didn't help. And besides, the smoke didn't have an identifiable electronic-component sort of smell. Just a generic smoky smell.
If you have driven the Interstate freeway between San Francisco and Los Angles at any speed close to the legal limit, you would have been passed by hundreds of cars whose drivers thought the limit was intended to keep slow pokes in the right lane as they whizzed by. A few of those cars are driven by cigar smokers; you can tell which ones by the very definite smell of cigar smoke which is sucked into your car as they pass. Even though the air is being stirred by the rapid motion of both cars, you can still tell who is guilty and who is not.
So it goes in flight. I knew it wasn't the other guy's smoke; he wasn't in front of me. It was definitely my problem, but at least it wasn't getting worse.
In fact, it might have been getting better. While there was a definite smell fifteen minutes ago, now it was just a questionable smell. Like maybe it hadn't really happened, after all. It was the middle of the night... maybe I had imagined the whole episode.
The engine continued to run. The plane continued to fly. I hadn't lost any airspeed or altitude. How bad could it be?
Pretty soon, the fire was forgotten. The smoky smell was gone and nothing seemed to be any worse than it was. We droned on into the night.
We landed in Honolulu right on schedule at about noon. We refueled and headed for a shower and some rest. The previous day had lasted all night and half way into the next.
By five o'clock the next morning we were wide awake and ready for the next leg. It would have been eight o'clock in San Francisco, so it didn't seem early at all. The weather looked good so we filed our flight plan and headed for the airport.
A quick glance at the plane showed all of the major pieces to be in place. The fuel tanks were full, the sun was coming up and, once again, all was well with the world. We called clearance delivery and then ground control. We were given the requested "Reef Runway," a newly opened piece of real estate two miles long and pointed out over the water. It was a long way to taxi, but the value of the extra runway justified the expense.
At the end of the runway, there is an area set aside for pilots to perform checks of the flight controls and run the engine up to a mid-level of power to make sure all systems are OK. It's called a run-up area for that very reason.
The plane passed all the run-up checks just like it had in Oakland a few days before. We were ready to go. Almost.
Even though the instruments said we were ready, something seemed wrong. The engine didn't sound as quiet as it had before, during the run-up in Oakland. There had been a definite change.
There are no guidelines for how much noise is proper. You can gauge the RPM, the cylinder head temperature, the exhaust gas temperature and lots of other items. The flight manual will tell you what is permitted for each item. But not the sound.
Now I had a choice; taxi back to the hanger and open up the cowling and take a look or press on. It was an easy decision... Back to the shop.
After we removed the engine cover, we discovered two things: why the noise had increased and where the previous night's smoke had come from. A piece of the exhaust system had broken off. Now the muffler could no longer do it's job of smoothing and quieting the flow of gasses from the engine. They no longer went out the exhaust pipe under the nose of the plane. They remained in the engine compartment and scorched the fiberglass cowling through the heat shield which had been designed to protect it.
So there was the answer to the long-forgotten smoke issue of the night before. After some of the fiberglass had burned away, there was no more to catch fire. So where was the missing exhaust piece now? It probably fell into the ocean just short of the runway as I put the landing gear down for the approach to Honolulu International.
Fortunately, it didn't get caught in the landing gear mechanism and cause the nose wheel to jam in some half-extended, half-retracted position.