Welcome back for another installment of one of my ‘lessons learned’ stories from my personal flying experiences over the years. This particular story, about carburetor icing, could have just as well been sub-titled: “How do you un-declare an emergency?”
Our story this time takes place in the summer of 1986. I was living in a one-bedroom airport in Costa Mesa, California, about one and one-half miles from John Wayne/Orange County Airport (SNA) in southern California. By that time I had my private pilot license about two years and enjoying every venture I took to the air – but today’s venture was more than what I was expecting.
A very beautiful young woman Abby had moved in to the same apartment complex and we became good friends – not dating or anything, but more than ‘Hi, how are you?’
She would come over to my place, or I would visit hers and we would talk about the day’s events or just chit-chat. One day I got up enough nerve and asked if she would be interested in going flying with me the next weekend to do some sightseeing at Catalina Island (AVX).
Catalina was one of those island locations you hear about in the movies or read in travel magazines. It is part of the Channel Islands chain off the coast of southern California, crystal clear lagoons and flora, and Avalon (the only city) was a tourist’s paradise. Oh, and by the way, their claim to fame (among other things) were the buffalo burgers they served at the airport café. So the time and date were set to meet at SNA to begin our journey.
The day had come and it was spectacular. In a pilot’s vernacular it was CAVU (i.e. clear and visibility unlimited). I rented a Cessna 152 from the flight school where I learned to fly and off we went. Geographically, the statute distance is 26 miles and about 2 hours by ferry (Readers note: in 1958, the group the Four Preps released a hit song in California whose opening lyrics were- ’26 miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is waiting for me…”) , but even in a two-seat underpowered Cessna 152, it took only about 20 minutes.
About mid-channel, the ‘fun’ began (let me preface this ‘fun’ by saying air temperature at sea level was 95 degrees, but at 5,500’ MSL it was about 70-75 degrees or so – keep that in mind, as it plays a very important part in our story). I suddenly noticed the propeller beginning to feather and the RPMs were dropping. Up to that time in my brief flying career, I had not experienced anything abnormal, like carburetor icing, in any flights. All at once I had my flight instructor Lance in my ear, “Start a descent and push in the carb heat.” Well I started my descent (but did not instinctively push in the carb heat for some reason) – I guess some first time “Oh, Oh’s” took over.
By that time we were close to the airport and I radioed the Unicom operator I wanted to declare an emergency. They immediately waved off any / all aircraft in the vicinity of the airport and I was cleared to land Runway 26. Since Catalina is an island airport, it is surrounded by cliffs on both sides of the runway. And as I was concentrating on putting this puppy on the ground, I realized I needed to listen to Lance’s second half of his imaginary message to push in the carb heat. I did, and the engine started back up and RPMs returned to normal. BUT, I was too high and was not wanting to make a bad situation worse.
I passed over the airport about 2,000 feet above pattern altitude and as I was about to start my ‘stairway to heaven’ climb I heard myself thinking: “How do you un-declare an emergency?” and Lance’s voice came back and said two things: ’aviate, navigate, and communicate’ and ‘there is no substitute for altitude.’ ‘Fly the plane, Shawn,’ I told myself and kept on climbing.
By the time I was assured of a landing by gliding if I had to, I was at a comfortable 8,000’ MSL and headed back to SNA. Poor Abby, all through this she did not say a word, but I noticed that her fingernails had made an indelible impression in the passenger armrests. We landed safely and (figuratively) kissed the ground. And though we remained friends, Abbey never flew with me again, nor did I mention that three-letter word again to her.
In the weeks that followed, I did my best private investigator impression and asked as many mechanics and flight instructors as I could about my experience and all said the same: “Son, it looks like a prime case of carburetor icing.” So it was, a BIG lesson learned for a still-green-behind-the-ears pilot but a valuable one at that, and one I’m glad it happened. So, in closing, be careful out there and remember to ‘aviate, navigate, and communicate’ (and hopefully the girl will want to go on another flight with you!)