I should’ve known better than to fly on April Fool’s Day, but it was only a few weeks before my Commercial ASEL checkride and I needed to get the maneuvers a little tighter, my flying a little smoother, and my confidence a little higher. I managed to pull off a rare hat trick in my training – I was able to get my instructor, Ron, my favorite 172, and a cool, clear day to all line up for a morning (!) training session. In the words of Michael Scott, the fictitious boss from the TV series The Office, “I’m not superstitious, but I am a little bit stitious.”
We took off from Monroe, NC (KEQY) with a clear plan of action for maneuvers and air work – we were even off the ground before we hit the thousand-footers. This was shaping up to be one of those golden days of flight training. You know the ones. It was one of those days where things just felt good. I knew I was going to make some mistakes and fly a little bit sloppy on some parts of the maneuvers, and I was okay with that. I felt almost ready for my checkride, but more importantly, I felt like I would definitely be ready for the checkride day as long as I kept up the flying pace, the studying, and the enthusiasm. In other words, there was nothing in my mindset that was telling me to knock this session off. I was having a great time and I didn’t want it to stop.
Then, well, it stopped.
I heard a noise that I thought sounded out of the normal and…I promptly ignored it and continued having fun. About 30 seconds later I spoke up but kept flying the Lazy 8 that I was on for almost a full minute before I made myself stop and acknowledge the fact that something wasn’t quite right, and it needed to be addressed.
Ron didn’t put up any resistance when I said that I was hearing something that I didn’t like – and I never would expect him to. I don’t think our relationship is a typical CFI/Student relationship, though. Ron has flown for over 50 years and has plenty of experience under his belt, and at that point, I’d been a professional aviation maintainer for 24 years. When I said that there was something I didn’t like, Ron had no hesitation about us taking the airplane back home for a closer look. To his credit, I wouldn’t expect him to talk any student, no matter their background, into flying an airplane that they had concerns over.
What I worry about is an inexperienced or apathetic CFI with a young student pilot in the same situation. It’s quite possible that the instructor is dealing with tons of things, personally and professionally, pulling him or her in several different directions, leaving them not fully concentrated on the task at hand. The student pilot is focused on the maneuvers, the lesson, the checkride, and the cost of the lesson. They may hear the odd noise, but not have the confidence to speak up. It’d be easier for the student to ignore the odd noise and not want to “bother” the CFI with something as mundane as a weird noise.
The other factor that led me to be hyper-sensitive is that I recently listened to Episode 13 of AOPA’s There I Was podcast about a pilot who was flying his Mooney home to Winona, MN from Ontario when he lost consciousness due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. He woke up in the pilot’s seat, not immediately realizing that he was on the ground in a snow-covered field, and managed to get out of the wreckage and walk to a house to get help. Thankfully he lived to tell his story, and you can hear it here; it’s well worth a listen.
I bought my own CO detector shortly after this flight with Ron. I did what everyone does with a brand-new detector – I stuck it in my car’s exhaust pipe to “try it out.” I should’ve read the instructions before I did that because it says in bold letters explicitly to not do that. Oops. We got back on the ground in Monroe and taxied up to the maintenance hangar. The maintenance guys were otherwise committed when we got there, but it wasn’t a problem because I had my A&P Certificate in my pocket and an itchy screwdriver finger. The worst thing that could have possibly happened at that point was that I looked over the engine and saw nothing out of the ordinary. There’s nothing more frustrating for pilot and mechanic alike than a “could not duplicate – no fault found” diagnosis. Especially when that mechanic is also the pilot who scrubbed the lesson because of a noise that his instructor couldn’t hear! Thankfully that wasn’t the case on this day and it didn’t take too long to find the source of the noise.
Ahhh, sweet, sweet vindication!
There was an empty hole in the exhaust flange where a fastener should have been. Each exhaust flange has two fasteners that secure it to the engine. There is also a gasket between the flange and the engine to create a tight seal that prevents exhaust gasses from getting into the engine compartment. If the fasteners or the gasket material fails, there’s a good chance that carbon monoxide can make its way into the cockpit, and that’s no good.
We left the cowling off, tossed the keys to the maintenance department, then went to lunch. I was still a bit bummed about the short lesson, but I felt good about finding a smoking gun.
This event wasn’t a big deal and we probably could have finished the lesson with no ill effects if the noise had gone undetected, but we would have left a broken, and possibly dangerous airplane for the next student. And who knows, the next student could have been going on their first solo cross country and wearing an ANR headset. Would that student have heard the noise? Would the exhaust stack have remained intact? Thankfully we don’t have the answers to those questions because we made the decision to stop flying on a beautiful spring morning.
I was able to schedule several other training sessions between then and my checkride which, I’m happy to say, I passed on April 23, 2019. Fly safe, keep your ears open, and don’t hesitate to speak up,
even if especially if you’re having a blast.