That Time It Got Quiet

Let's just all pretend we don't realize how awkward this camera angle is.

The second neutral point flight started out with an uneventful airborne pickup. I was solo in the instrumented KR, and Diane Barney flew chase with Colin Bowman as FTE in the Tiger. Colin was armed with a laptop, AirDAQ receiver, and was making good use of my DSLR. Since these flights are CG-critical, myself and Colin were both paying extra attention to fuel management. Ten minutes into the flight, we had just completed our first sawtooth, and the engine went quiet.

I've had sputters before, during negative-G maneuvers or prolonged sideslips that unported a tank, but this was distinctly different. I was in straight-and-level trimmed flight, and it was like someone had shut the mags off. I found the black knob and pushed it to the firewall. The engine responded with complete indifference. I came to terms with the fact that I was a glider and set the airplane up for an appropriate glide speed - fortunately, I was already trimmed for about 100 MIAS.

I hit the PTT and spoke. "Test is deadstick." I was greeted with "Say again?" Lesson 1: Chase doesn't expect you to be deadstick.

Koehn lake on the top right, Cal City on the bottom left. The airport is just northwest of the City.

Koehn lake on the top right, Cal City on the bottom left. The airport is just northwest of the City.

OK, time to make some decisions. I started pumping the throttle to see if the accelerator pump was alive, and was rewarded with some gentle puffs of life - not enough to maintain altitude, but enough to give me some time to think. I looked outside. Koehn "dry lake" is notoriously not dry enough to set down on. I found a dirt road near the Friends of Amateur Rocketry launch site. It would work, but it wouldn't be pretty. I asked chase to help me find a spot. Diane pointed me towards some long, straight roads on the north side of the lake. I'm used to flying things that don't give you much chance in the case of a rollover, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about the risk balance of landing out in airplanes like the KR. I started picking out pavement.

I had some oxygen buffer between myself and the ground, so I started flipping all of the feel-good switches. Boost pump on. Carb heat on - that made it worse. Mixture rich - no change. Back to messing with the carb heat. After about two minutes of quiet time and about 1000 feet of altitude loss, the engine hesitantly started to wake up. At first, there were lots of coughs and sputters, but I found I could leave the throttle wide open and get enough power to make some tracks. California City airport was in sight about 15 nm to the southeast, and the area between Koehn and Cal City is homogeneously forgiving, so I told chase that I was making a run for it.

By the time we got to Cal City, the engine seemed to have regained a lot of its self-confidence, but I erred on the safe side and told chase to expect a spiraling approach from 7500 MSL. Chase got me weather and brought up CTAF on their COM2. They offered up one runway option; I quickly realized I couldn't do math when I found myself using my vertical-card compass to find reciprocal headings and runway favorability. Lesson 2: You can get really stupid when something has gone way wrong in the air.

The approach and landing was uneventful. Chase coordinated with other traffic in the area to ensure that my last couple of circles over the field were free from distraction. I came in a little hot and landed a little long - on purpose this time. Mixture, mags, master, canopy, belts, and just like that it was another flight I could walk away from.

Chase crew heading for the brief. Good folks to have around.

Chase crew heading for the brief. Good folks to have around.

My experience with things going wrong in the air is unique. In most cases when something has gone wrong, I've been flying with chase or at least with a copilot or FTE, and I've been thankful to be able to share the workload with them. I'd love to say that this is the result of a conscious decision to bring chase along for high-risk flights, but in reality, things usually go wrong during very mundane flights. I think each of these experiences has helped me get a little better at knowing how to use the resources that are available to minimize the risk of doing what we do.