So there I was….

Late on a Sunday morning, just trying to get back home to Enid, Oklahoma to see the wife and kiddo for dinner after a long, 3-day cross country spanning Denver, Colorado to Omaha, Nebraska and back to home-base.

My student and I took off uneventfully from Omaha and we were on the Standard Instrument Departure (SID) routing. We had just punched out of the weather at 14,000’ and I was monitoring the student’s flying, noting any discrepancies for the last of his 6 grade sheets for the weekend. He had made significant progress during the previous sorties, which I considered a win from an instructor point of view.

We were the last in a train of five aircraft to depart Eppley Field in Omaha. I was listening to the quiet purr of the single Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprop engine in my T-6A Texan II and performing my own ‘ops check’ (operations check) in the backseat when I noticed the digital gauge, indicating engine oil pressure, bounce from near zero to the maximum limit several times before settling just below the acceptable operations limits.

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. –Student pilot 2nd Lt. Grant Webber and instructor pilot Lt. Col. Mike Jansen perform pre-flight checks on a T-6 Texan aircraft at Vance AFB, Okla. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Brian Hill)
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. –Student pilot and instructor pilot perform pre-flight checks on a T-6 Texan aircraft (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Brian Hill)

“Oh no…” I whispered to myself. The engine seemed like it was running normally, but the PT-6A is the only provider of thrust to my trusty T-6. Any hint that it isn’t running as advertised is cause for concern.

I take the controls from the student by commanding “I have the aircraft,” and immediately turn towards to the nearest airfield (which happened to be Eppley Field).

“Departure, Hook 69, Emergency…..with a request,” I said as I thumbed the primary radio push to talk (PTT) switch forward. Omaha Departure answered “go ahead Hook 69…confirm you’re an emergency?”. I tried to process everything that is occurring as the ATC controller responds.

I replied “affirm, Hook 69 is an emergency, proceeding direct Eppley…standby”.

I wonder why I even used the word ‘request’ to ATC to begin with, since I had my course of action already decided, and pulled the throttle to just above idle power to give the T-6 it’s best descent rate over distance. My eyes went back to the engine gauges. The oil pressure had dropped further out of limits. I tried to think back to all of the ‘stand up’ scenarios I presented to students, and one phrase stuck in my mind: “Maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation and land as soon as conditions permit”.

Maintain aircraft control. I immediately confirm the throttle is set to 4-6% RPM (the best power-on glide setting) and trim for 125 knots (the T-6’s best glide speed).

Analyze the situation. I clearly have an engine problem, and there is a checklist for that. But we’ll get to that later.

Land as soon as conditions permit. Am I pointed back towards the nearest airfield? Yes, but I have to lose 13,000’ in 10 miles…through the weather.

T-6 Texan Photo credit:
T-6 Texan Photo credit:

I immediately determine that getting down to the runway is my most challenging problem. The engine was still running, but who knows for how long.

Let’s just concentrate on getting this thing over with ASAP, I think to myself.

I did some quick math and determine that I need to perform a near 10-degree nose-low descent to intercept my engine-out, over-the field-position of 4,000’ AGL (also known as high key). If I lose the engine at any point in time and make it to high key, I should be able to land without a problem. But at that instant, I can’t even see the runway.

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Aviate, Navigate, Communicate….then Checklist

I decided that my best course of action is to punch through the weather with the maximum amount of energy possible and then maneuver myself to the airfield with any excess energy (airspeed) I have available. If I’m lucky, this engine will still work. If I dork it up, I will have power available to make up for my mistake (hopefully). I decided to push the nose over to 10 degrees below the horizon to build airspeed while I penetrate the cumulonimbus deck below me.

My eyes go back to the engine gauges as the weather envelopes my bubble canopy. Everything is still working, but the oil pressure is steadily dropping. I think back to referencing the checklist. My caveman brain was overloaded at this point just trying to fly on my instruments.

T-6 Texan cockpit, Photo credit:
T-6 Texan cockpit, Photo credit:

Then, I remembered the other human currently occupying the seat directly in front of me.

“Hey man, can you pull out your checklist and look at the Engine Oil Malfunction page for me?“Sure,” he answers, “it just says to land as soon as possible.”

I thought to myself, “well, no sh**,” and filled my student in on the situation. “We’re going to punch through this weather and gain some airspeed to get to high key. Check my math, but I think we’re good if the engine decides to quit.” The student confirms that it should work out, but at some point I wondered if this is a ‘blind leading the blind’ situation.

As I was about to breakout from the weather, I remembered that I never got back to Omaha Departure control on the nature of my emergency.

“Hook 69 has an engine problem, landing at Eppley Field, 2 souls on board, 3 hours’ gas, switching to tower.”

I didn’t even wait for a response as I dialed in Omaha Tower’s frequency and announced my intentions to land on runway 18. I checked to ensure the PT-6A was still running, and everything checked out normal. My engine oil pressure has fallen near zero, though.

Now in the clear, I see the runway off to my left and used my excess airspeed (now over 270 knots) to fly myself over the runway at an air speed low enough to drop the landing gear and circle to land. I quietly pat myself on the back, and land uneventfully. Since my engine was running normal (despite the low oil pressure) I elected to taxi back to parking instead of shutting down and clogging up the many airliners behind me.

After landing, I was organizing alternate plans to return to Oklahoma and thought about giving myself a ‘gold-star’ for handling the emergency well. But then, I thought to myself “you know, you had another person in the aircraft and all you did was make him a checklist reader.” I should have been using him to help spot the runway, call out airspeeds or communicate on the radio. Additionally, my comm with Omaha Departure wasn’t great.

T-6 landing. Photo credit:
T-6 landing. Photo credit:

I later found out the apparent culprit of my oil pressure malfunction was a faulty seal on the oil filter, which allowed high-pressure oil to leak out at a fairly fast rate. If this was a ‘stand up’ scenario in the flight room, I would have been debriefed for not using crew-resource management principles to ensure the aircraft made it to the ground safely.

But questioning my actions isn’t unnatural. Any professional aviator learns early on in their training that constant critiquing of one’s actions (even if the end result was satisfactory) is an absolute necessity to becoming a true expert.

–   J. Kirkbride

Top Photo credit: Flickr (Nick Thomas)

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