Twas the Night Before Christmas
Well, of course not. Everyone knows that Santa is the only one flying on Christmas Eve, well almost the only one. Some scheduled airlines do fly, but they are way up there and no problem to Santa. Very few General Aviation airplanes are flying.
Several years ago we decided to make a flight from Pittsburgh, PA, to Moline, IL, on Christmas Eve. We had both worked most of the day and the departure from Pittsburgh in a Mooney 201 was mid-afternoon. Weather was pretty good, but I filed and IFR flight plan anyway. The Mooney could make that trip non-stop, so we planned to arrive in Moline just after dark.
It was cold, but the plane performed very well in the colder weather. About 30 minutes after departure, while in cruise flight, I heard a “thump” in the engine. Quickly checking all instruments, I could find nothing out of the normal. Since there was very little traffic, the air traffic controllers were being extra nice on that day. I got handed off to Fort Wayne, IN, Approach and the young lady controller was almost glad to have the company. We exchanged greetings, and she asked if we were going to stop there. I said that we usually do, but this day we were going to make it a non-stop trip to Moline.
Just then there was another “thump” in the engine. Again, I checked all instruments and gauges and nothing seemed out of the normal, but then another “thump,” and another “thump.” OK, this is the time to get on the ground and find out what is going on. Although the engine RPM and MAP never changed I did not think it was a good idea to continue on, and it would be getting dark very soon. An engine problem in the dark was not an appealing idea, so I called back to Fort Wayne Approach and said that we would be making a landing there. In fact, since I was not sure about the engine at that moment, I would declare an emergency and take any available runway. The landing was uneventful and I turned off the runway and was met by a fire truck. They weren’t taking any chances either.
We got a tow to the FBO. Late on Christmas Eve I was not sure that any mechanics would be there, but there were a few. They checked over the engine, and pulled the spark plugs to inspect them. All seemed OK, and they replaced only one plug, even thought it looked OK too. I took a quick test flight, and heard the “thump” again, and landed. That ended the flight on that day. I would not continue cross country in the dark with a questionable thing going on in the engine. There is a motel right across from the terminal building, so we checked in for the night.
I called my instructor friend, Woody, in Pittsburgh and told him about the problem. I don’t know anyone that knows Mooney’s better than Woody. He asked if I had done a good job of checking for water in the fuel before take-off. I said that I had and found no water or anything else in the fuel. He said that when it is very cold, like it was that night, some droplets of water can freeze and get suspended in the fuel. When a small drop of water makes its way into a cylinder there would be a single misfire, then everything would continue as normal. Woody said to get rid of this possible problem, add a pint of alcohol to each fuel tank. The alcohol would actually mix with the water, or ice crystals, where as gasoline would not, and that little amount of alcohol would not cause any problem in the engine. So, on Christmas Morning, we were back at the FBO. They did add the alcohol to each tank, and we topped off with fuel. The problem went away. It was clear but very cold, and we were in Moline by 10:30 to be met by the only employee that was required to work at the FBO that day. Family members picked us up a few minutes later for a fun Christmas and weekend.
Never did see Santa Clause either day on that flight. I am sure that ATC would have pointed out the traffic to me, since there was not much traffic other than scheduled air anywhere.
Could that problem happen in Arizona? Well, it does get cold here, too. I have never experienced that again, but am on guard for it anyway. Don’t forget to do a good pre-flight on any plane for every flight. And, don’t miss the Safety Seminars by your Arizona Pilots Association. Bring your “wingman” and have a Happy New Year!