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Smoke in the Cockpit

By Eric McCarthy

It was a hot, humid August day in the year 2000. My wife, youngest son, and I decided to take a quick flight over Massachusetts’ North Shore. I had done this flight many times: we’d depart Lawrence Municipal Airport (KLWM) to the east, climbing to 2,500-3,000 feet, following the Merrimack River as it winds its way 15 miles or so to the Atlantic, passing the quaint town of Newburyport before reaching the mouth of the river. There, I would usually proceed out to sea a couple of miles before executing a 270-degree, descending left turn to align the aircraft with the coastline at an altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

We’d fly southbound along the beaches of Plum Island, past the majestic Crane Estate and its magnificent grounds, then Crane’s Beach before turning east to round Cape Ann, the nub of land that projects into the Atlantic north of Boston. We’d pass the aptly named and picturesque town of Rockport, and  Thacher Island, a small island just off the coast and home to the twin, 124-foot tall, lighthouses known as Ann’s Eyes, built in 1861.

Then southwest past Good Harbor Beach and Bass Rocks, turning north around Eastern Point, over Gloucester Harbor and past Hammond Castle, up the Annisquam River, past Wingaersheek Beach, then we’d retrace our steps up the coast for the return to the airport. My wife, boys, and I had spent many a summer day at the various beaches and towns we’d be flying over; this flight would provide a fresh perspective on these familiar sites. It’s a pleasant, scenic flight and only takes about 45 minutes to fly.

At least, that was the plan…

I had recently checked out in an F-33A (N1932N), the straight-tail, short fuselage version of the Beechcraft Bonanza. I suppose it could be argued that it has been displaced from its pedestal by the Cirrus aircraft, but at the time, the Bonanza was pretty much a top dog of the single engine aircraft. It was roomy and comfortable, powerful and fast, and I was looking forward to introducing my wife to the comfort and speed of the Bonanza. It was a significant step up from the Cessnas and Piper I had been flying.

I got the plane preflighted, loaded everyone into the plane, and taxied to the active runway 23. Runup complete, tower cleared us for takeoff; I advanced the throttle and she accelerated quickly to rotation speed. Just as I lifted off, I saw something; I’m still not exactly sure of what I saw – a mist or puff of something that dissipated as quickly as it had materialized. 

“Did you see that?” I asked my wife.

“See what?” Well, I guess not then…

But I had an uneasy feeling about it. With my wife and son on board, I didn’t want to take any chances. It would be disappointing to cancel the flight at this point, but safety trumps all…

I called the tower and told them I wanted to come back, I thought I had seen a puff of smoke…

“Are you declaring an emergency?” an excited controller asked.

Maybe I should have, but at the time I had all the traditional fears of FAA inquiry and reams of paperwork designed to trip you up and find fault if you declared an emergency; besides, everything seemed okay, I just wanted to err on the side of caution. I kept it all pretty low-key – I didn’t want to alarm my wife and son, and to their credit, they remained quiet and let me deal with the situation with minimal interference.

“Negative, just want to make a precautionary landing…”

Lawrence is a pretty small airport. It has some business jet activity, a couple of repair facilities, and two or three FBO/flight training facilities. The Massachusetts State Police and an air ambulance service kept helicopters there, and over the years, Mike Goulian kept his airshow and Red Bull Air Race planes hangared there, and Terrafugia would soon test fly their flying car from the Lawrence runways, but most of the traffic was small GA aircraft. And most of the time, like most airports I suppose, it was pretty quiet, and there wasn’t a lot of excitement…

“All aircraft clear the pattern. N1932N cleared to land whatever runway you’d like. Wind 250 at 4. We’ve got the equipment rolling for you.” This was clearly going to be a bigger deal than I had anticipated…

Turning northwest on crosswind from runway 23 pretty much sets you up for a right downwind for runway 14.

“Okay, we’ll take 14, 32November.” As long as we’re heading back with a potential problem, no sense extending our time airborne, not to mention our parking space was over there…

I got the plane squared away for landing, did a quick GUMPS check and turned final. Oh boy, here they come! I don’t recall how many fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances they had scrambled, but it was an impressive display of flashing lights lining taxiway Delta awaiting our arrival. I don’t know how they got there so quickly, but had I actually needed them, they would have been ready to do what was necessary, and I’m grateful for that.

The landing was uneventful and as I rolled to a stop on the runway, the flashing entourage descended on our plane. After an initial inspection to determine that we weren’t on fire, Tower called seeking my intentions.

“I guess we’ll taxi back to parking…”

And so, trailing several emergency vehicles, I cleared at Delta, taxied to the north ramp, and parked. We got out, discussed what had happened with the emergency services guys, thanked them for their service, and packed it in for the day. I don’t specifically recall, but I think I went to the tower to talk with the controllers as well. I hadn’t actually declared an emergency, but I had clearly received preferential treatment as if I had. And yet, no reams of paper, no castigation, not even a call from the FAA.

The North Shore tour would wait for another day… 

The next day, a brief article appeared in the local paper, The Lawrence Eagle Tribune, with the heading:

Scared Pilot Returns To Airport 

Wow, I guess I should have been brave and just flown around for a while…

I notified the aircraft owner who ordered an inspection to see if there was anything to be concerned about. Spoiler alert: there was! The inspection revealed a shocking discovery: the entire backside of the left side exhaust manifold – all three pipes – had corroded away! Hot exhaust gases were flowing freely under the cowling, introducing the potential for fire, carbon monoxide poisoning, and who knows what other potential problems! As I indicated, I’m still not sure what I had seen, but I’m glad it prompted me to return to the airport post haste! I don’t know how close we were to disaster, but it was a lot closer than I’d like to be!

Say again?

We recently departed Fallbrook Air Park (L18) bound for Imperial (KIPL) and climbing to get over the mountains at Julian VOR (JLI). As we usually do, we had requested Flight Following and were listening to SoCal when we heard the parachute operation in Oceanside (KOKB) check in with their standard notification:

“Go Jump 1, jumpers away in two minutes, Oceanside.” 

SoCal relayed their announcement to all the traffic in the area, followed shortly thereafter by Go Jump 1 again:

“Go Jump 1, jumpers away! It’s raining men… and women! Oceanside.”

I’m not sure if that’s standard phraseology, but it got the message across!

Back to the Future

In another humorous incident, this time in my old stomping grounds in the Northeast, an aircraft overran the 1,760-foot runway at Cranland Airport (28M) in the small town of Hanson, Mass. It probably wouldn’t have made the news if there hadn’t been another crash just a few days before at the same airport, that one involving a fatality, but there it was all over the local news. One reporter, attempting to do her job, interviewed the pilot who had apparently maintained his sense of humor through the ordeal, telling her he believed it was a “defective flux capacitator” (sic) that contributed to the crash – which, of course, she dutifully reported to everyone in the greater Boston area and beyond! Doc Brown must be enjoying a good laugh in his DeLorean somewhere in the space/time continuum!

That’s all for this month. Until next time, fly safe!


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