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Teeth chattering

An engine tears itself apart

By Gregory Duckworth

Single-engine flight at night. We’ve all read about worst-case aviation tragedies, but it’s something many of us have done over and over again, accepting the mitigated risks. I suppose, each time playing the odds.

Illustration by James Carey.
Zoomed image
Illustration by James Carey.

On Thursday, February 23, 2023, fellow pilot Norton Geddie and I were on a return flight to Grand Strand Airport (CRE) in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, from our annual experimental aircraft condition inspection at Covington, Tennessee (M04), about an hour’s drive north of Memphis along the Mississippi River. I was flying front seat as pilot in command.

The aircraft and engine had just been signed off as airworthy and ready for return to flight, and compression checks on cylinders were all good. After a brief weather delay, precautionary engine runups, and a local flight in the pattern, we pointed the nose eastward. Given that we’d just had the cowling off and the engine poked and prodded, we were hyper-vigilant monitoring the engine gauges—paying particular attention to oil temperature and pressure, as well as cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures, while keeping our ears perked for any unusual sounds coming from the low-time, custom-built Lycoming O-320 with more than 170 horsepower mounted on the back of our Rutan Long-EZ.

At approximately two and a half hours into an as-of-yet uneventful flight, everything was looking and sounding normal, the engine gauges were in the green, and we were conservatively cruising along at an altitude of 11,500 feet, with a ground speed of 220 knots.

Suddenly, and without warning, the engine began to run rough (the way it might feel if you have a fouled spark plug during runup). Out of an abundance of caution, I immediately notified Jacksonville Center of our engine problem and declared an emergency. We were handed over to Columbia Approach as we began our descent while receiving vectors into the Columbia Metro Airport (CAE) Class C Airspace.

The sun had already set, and it was now quite dark over the Columbia metropolitan area. As many can attest, locating an airport—even in broad daylight—can at times be somewhat challenging.

Now, imagine being in an unplanned, high-stress predicament over a heavily populated airspace at night, where the situation is getting grimmer by the moment, where the view from above is lots of lights. Lots of lights, everywhere in all directions, where big box shopping centers are starting to look like a good “Plan B” option, if we can’t locate the airport in the ocean of lights below.

We were doing our best to balance altitude and airspeed while looking for the airport, when the engine, which was running quite rough, suddenly devolved into an attention-shattering violence that had us questioning whether the engine was going to depart the aircraft, rendering us a high-speed lawn dart. Meanwhile, the engine gauges on our EFIS began flashing red warning lights for temperature, pressure, and more.

Given the situation, we had to gamble on keeping the engine running, squeezing out each remaining rpm, to assure we were actually going to locate and make the airfield. At some point during our descent, the engine finally seized, and the airplane became a glider.

Our in-flight emergency lasted 10 to 12 minutes and, during that short, fast-paced period of time, the only things that mattered were flying the aircraft, locating the airport, and—crucial to locating it—communicating with controller William Hinson and the folks at CAE. They were instrumental in keeping us briefed—and alive—with any information we requested, from vectors to field elevation and runway selection, all being transmitted in a timely fashion.

The entire event was a dry-mouthed, one-shot, life-or-death, laser-focused gut check, where everything had to happen correctly to put our aircraft in the right place at the right time, with altitude and airspeed thankfully culminating in a perfect engine-out approach and “chirp-chirp” landing as the mains touched down on Runway 23.

Hinson and his team were with us every step of the way and we were truly fortunate to have them on duty as a part of our flight crew that evening. Emergency personnel and vehicles were also deployed. They were ready for the worst, gladly settling for a peaceful tow to Eagle Aviation FBO.

We returned to the airport that weekend during daylight hours to remove the cowling and get a good look at the engine. What we found were the remnants of a catastrophic engine failure, with the number three cylinder being sheared from the engine block and the block itself sustaining numerous external and internal cracks, including portions of the engine at the points of the cylinder mounts having broken off in chunks.

Bits and pieces of engine case, sheared bolts, metal shavings, along with all our oil had departed through the prop wash leaving carnage to our Gary Hertzler Silver Bullet prop in its wake. The only thing that kept the number three cylinder from exiting the engine compartment was a metal baffle.

Gregory Duckworth is an airplane single-engine land private pilot based at Grand Strand Airport (CRE).

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