No aspect of airplane ownership is more exasperating than when things go wrong while far from home, as a recent coast-to-coast trip in my Cessna 310 illustrated vividly. A review of some lessons learned.
April 7, 2000
This was a trip I had been anticipating eagerly all
year. I'd been invited to give a seminar at the Cayman
Islands' International Aviation Week gathering, and would be flying my
T310R from its west coast base to Key West Florida, then joining up with The Cayman Caravan to fly over the top of Cuba
and into Grand Cayman.
Whenever I make a coast-to-coast trip in the 310,
I try to work as many productive stops into the itinerary as possible. This
trip was no exception: I'd be spending a day in Phoenix, Arizona, for a business
meeting on the way out, going to the Caymans for a week, spending a week
in Boca Raton, Florida, at AVweb headquarters, and then stopping at
the Cessna single-engine plant in Independence,
Kansas, on the way back to California. It was an ambitious schedule, but
doable...if nothing went wrong.
In anticipation of the trip (which would involve around 30 hours of flying
time), I'd elected to do an earlier-than-usual oil and filter change so that
no scheduled maintenance would be required during the trip. I also sent in
an oil sample for SOAP analysis, and the report from Engine Oil Analysis
came back clean.
I'd also made a point of sending my ailing Stormscope in to BFGoodrich for
repair a month and a half before the trip, knowing that there were bound
to be plenty of TRWs to circumnavigate in the Deep South in June. The black
boxes came back about two weeks before my departure (with a $500 repair bill).
Unfortunately, upon reinstalling them in the airplane and strapping on a
test set, it appeared that the Stormscope computer was just as sick as when
I'd sent it in. By a stroke of luck and ingenuity, Tom Rogers at Avionics
West managed to come up with a loaner WX-10 computer module that I could
take on the trip, while mine got shipped back to BFG with a nastygram.
Off to a Flying Start
Departure Saturday finally arrived, and I launched on-schedule from Santa
Maria. My first stop was Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California, to pick
up my friend Joe Godfrey who would be copilot on this trip. As a veteran
of numerous solo transcontinental trips by lightplane, I can tell you that
having a second pilot along makes the trip a lot more fun and a lot less
exhausting. So I invited Joe along to the Caymans, and he thought about it
for about four milliseconds before saying yes.
An experienced instrument pilot and owner of a beautiful Bellanca Super Viking,
Joe would be accompanying me on the trip across the country, down to the
Caymans and back to Florida...at which point he would be taking a commercial
flight back while I did my business in Boca Raton. My return to the west
coast would have to be flown solo.
The plane performed flawlessly during the hour-long hop to Palomar, and I
even shot an autopilot-coupled ILS approach through the overcast. Joe was
waiting for me. We loaded his luggage - even found room for his golf clubs
- and launched IFR for Phoenix. I asked Joe if he'd like to take the left
seat for this leg, and this time he took only two milliseconds to say yes.
The flight to Phoenix was beautiful and uneventful, and we landed at Sky
Harbor Airport just in time to make our dinner date with friends. Cutter
Flying Service had our rental car waiting planeside before the props came
to a stop.
I decided all the omens pointed to a perfect problem-free trip to the Cayman
Islands and back. But then, I was never very good at reading omens.
After a very productive Sunday in Phoenix, Joe and I headed for the airport
early Monday morning to launch for points east. We probably should have seen
the changing of the tea leaves when we found ourselves mired in city
traffic...our 15-minute drive to the airport wound up taking nearly an hour.
The Weather Channel and the DTN weather machine at Cutter seemed to agree
that we'd have smooth sailing across Arizona, New Mexico, and most of Texas.
Things were forecast to start getting sticky in southeast Texas and Louisiana,
We needed to arrive in Key West no later than early afternoon on Tuesday.
So we decided to file from Phoenix to Austin, Texas (a four-hour leg), and
then try (weather permitting) to fly one more short leg to some suitable
R.O.N. in Louisiana, Alabama, or the Florida panhandle, thereby putting us
within easy one-leg range of Key West by Monday night and letting us traverse
the Florida thunderstorm belt in the early morning. It was a good plan.
The computer said we could trim nearly a half-hour off our flying time to
Austin by climbing up to the Flight Levels, a prospect that excited Joe because
he'd never flown that high in a piston aircraft. We filed for FL190. I decided
to fill all five tanks, even though the avgas was pricey at PHX, to give
us as many options as possible. This proved to be a good decision.
It was hot as Hades by the time we lifted off from PHX, tolerable by the
time we climbed through ten thousand, and chilly enough by the time we reached
FL190 that we had to flip on the cabin heater. The trip across AZ and NM
was smooth and spectacular, and by the time we crossed over El Paso it was
clear that we were making exceptionally good time. So good that we started
talking about the possibility of pressing on past Austin.
Both Joe and I are lovers of Cajun food, and Joe'd received a tip that some
of the best could be had at Lafayette, Louisiana. Our calculations showed
that at our present rate, we should be able to make it non-stop to Lafayette
with about 1+15 worth of fuel left over. We also calculated that Lafayette
was easily within one-leg striking distance of Key West. An R.O.N. at Lafayette
sounded like a winner, so we advised Houston Center that we were amending
our destination to LFT.
As we got "east of the Pecos", activity started to kick up on our Stormscope.
Flight Watch advised that there was an area of rapidly-building convective
activity just northeast of Houston, but that so far it seemed to be south
of our route. Scattered clouds beneath us thickened up to broken and then
overcast. As we passed north of Houston, we could see what looked like monster
cumulus out the right window, and decided we were glad not to be any closer
to it. (Later on the TV news, we learned this particular thunderstorm dropped
Glitch Number One
The GPS said we were only a half-hour out from LFT,
so we asked to start down from FL190. I flipped altitude-hold off and rolled
the autopilot pitch wheel forward to 1,000 FPM down. Not long after that,
Joe heard something in his headset that sounded like me saying "OH SHOOT!!!"
or words to that effect.
"What's wrong?" asked Joe, frantically scanning the unfamiliar twin Cessna
"See that little fluorescent orange button?" I replied, pointing to the vacuum
gauge. "We've lost our right vacuum pump." Visions of dollar-signs flooded
my brain, making it hard to concentrate on flying the airplane.
Technically, I explained to Joe, loss of a vacuum pump might conceivably
be considered a no-go item under FAR 91.213. Practically, I didn't feel great
about flying to the Caymans with only one pump.
Once on the ground at Lafayette, I checked my wristwatch: 6:30 pm CDT. Too
late to find any maintenance personnel here, but still business hours back
on the west coast. We decided to phone Chief Aircraft in Oregon or San-Val
Discount in California and see if we could get them to overnight a replacement
pump to our hotel in Key West, where it'd hopefully be waiting for us when
we arrived the next day. That way, we could stay on schedule for the Cayman
Caravan but still have the pump fixed before our flight to the Caymans. Sounded
like a plan. But we'd have to act fast.
The first order of business was to determine the correct part number of the
failed vacuum pump. I was pretty sure that it was an Airborne 442-CW
but what if I was wrong and it was a 441-CC?
Lesson #1: Bring your maintenance logs and your parts and service manuals
along on any long trip.
Lacking any documentation, Joe and I decided to decowl the right engine on
the ramp and have a quick look at the failed pump. Sure enough, the part
number tag was legible, it was a 442-CW (an eight-year-old RAPCO rebuilt),
and it was definitely dead: I could see the sheared coupling when Joe rotated
Next, we needed the phone number for Chief or San-Val. Surely someone at
the FBO has a copy of Trade-A-Plane somewhere? Nope!
Joe tried calling directory assistance at 1-800-555-1212 to get the numbers.
The operator insisted that there was no listing for Chief Aircraft in Grants
Pass, Oregon! Joe did get a number for San-Val, however.
Lesson #2: Always carry a copy of Trade-A-Plane (or a little black
book of key phone numbers) on any long trip.
We called San-Val. They didn't have a 442-CW pump in stock, but they did
have a 400-series pump repair kit consisting of a new hub, new vanes and
a new coupler for $135. Could they overnight it to Key West? Yes, if they
hurried. Do it!
Satisfied that we'd done all we could do for the moment, Joe and I talked
the nice folks at Paul Fournet Air Service into lending us their courtesy
car for the night and giving us directions to the best Cajun restaurant in
Lafayette, where we gorged ourselves with gumbo, alligator fritters, and
a variety of other bayou delicacies that I can't remember how to spell, all
the while being entertained with live Cajun music. It was enough to make
us forget the $2.50/gallon price for 100LL!
After dinner, we checked into the Holiday Inn Express adjacent to the airport,
and I fell dead asleep within minutes. Great food will do that to you.
Off To Key West...
I awoke early Tuesday morning, tuned in The Weather Channel, fired up my
notebook computer, and started planning the morning's flight to Key West.
There was bad news and good news. The bad news was that Florida was awash
in thunderstorms already, some of which looked like they might be too densely
packed to pick through. The good news was that Louisiana was the jumping-off
point for an overwater Jet Route over the Gulf of Mexico that could take
us to Key West while remaining clear of most of the convective activity,
and would shave 45 minutes off the flying time as a bonus. We'd even have
tailwinds if we flew up high. Sounded like a plan. I filed J58 and J41 at
The flight to Key West was textbook perfect, except for that fluorescent
orange ball that kept staring at me from the vacuum gauge. The engines ran
smooth as silk despite the overwater routing, and the dual moving-map GPSs
we were carrying made navigation a breeze. On one occasion, we asked to deviate
north around a little build-up and Center approved it with the proviso that
we remain within 4 NM of the J58 centerline. GPS made this easy.
The overwater route kept us relatively clear of the weather until the last
20 minutes of the flight. Key West weather was good, but there was a lot
of TRW activity to the north and east. We heard many EYW-bound flights from
the Florida mainland giving up and landing short of the destination. Our
overwater approach didn't look too bad, and we picked our way through using
the Stormscope, encountering some moderate rain during our descent from FL190
but no real turbulence.
We landed at Key West around 1:30 pm EDT, secured the aircraft, caught a
shuttle bus to our hotel and checked in at the front desk. Had an overnight
express package arrived for us from California? Yesssss!!!!! Don't you just
love it when a plan comes together?
Vacuum Pump Surgery
I pulled out my pocket knife and cut open the little package from San-Val
right on the spot. The good news was that it appeared to contain a 400-series
pump repair kit, as ordered. The bad news was that the kit did not contain
either an accessory pad gasket or a band gasket, so if we damaged either
gasket while removing and disassembling the failed pump, the game would be
Joe and I hopped a shuttle bus back to the airport with the pump kit in-hand.
By now it was 3:00 pm. We decowled the right engine and surveyed the little travelling toolkit that I always carry in the
left wing locker of the 310. We decided that the only critical tool we were
missing was a 7/16" offset wrench, needed to loosen and tighten the four
nuts that secure the vacuum pump to the engine accessory pad. Joe turned
on his charm and managed to sweet-talk one of the local A&Ps into lending
us a 7/16" Snap-On offset wrench for a few minutes.
Lesson #3: Always carry a good collection of tools with you, and be prepared
to grovel for what you need but don't have. (I'm adding a 7/16" offset wrench
to my kit.)
The vacuum and pressure hoses came off easily (remarkable after 8 years of
baking) and the pump came cleanly off the accessory pad, leaving the pad
gasket totally intact and undamaged on the engine. All that clean living
was finally paying off!
We took the pump, the repair kit and a few tools up to a little kitchen area
above the FBO and managed to remove the back cover of the pump without cutting
the band gasket. The graphite hub had fractured into a half-dozen pieces,
and the vanes had exploded into a couple of dozen more pieces. Classic
catastrophic dry vacuum pump failure. After 8 years and nearly 1,000 hours
of service, I figured that RAPCO rebuilt pump was fully depreciated.
After making careful notes of the order in which the parts came out of the
pump and which direction the rotor was oriented, I dumped all the graphite
fragments into the trash can and cleaned up the pump cavity as well as possible,
using air and paper towels. (I didn't dare use solvent since liquids are
death on dry vacuum pumps.) Joe and I then installed the new hub and vanes
from the repair kit, reassembled the other pump parts, and carefully reinstalled
the band gasket and back cover.
My pocket knife turned out to be the optimal tool for extracting the sheared
coupler from the front of the pump. The new coupler from the repair kit then
went in easily. The pump passed the rotate-by-hand test and was ready to
reinstall on the engine.
Reinstallation turned out to be the most difficult part, because getting
the 7/16" nuts threaded onto the attach studs in the confines of the pump
pockets turns out to be tricky. After dropping several nuts and wasting a
good deal of time searching for them, Joe and I improvised a nut starter
by wrapping a flat screwdriver blade with duct tape (sticky side out) and
managed to get all the nuts threaded in place.
The pump passed the rotate-the-prop-by-hand test, then the
turn-over-the-engine-with-the-starter test. So we cowled up the right engine
and I started it. Lo and behold, the repaired pump produced the requisite
5 in. hg. of vacuum on the gauge and the gyros erected. Success!
The entire remove-repair-reinstall process took only about an hour, and I
was a happy camper. I'd always heard bad things about do-it-yourself vacuum
pump repair kits, but decided that if the repaired pump lasted just four
hours (to the Caymans and back to Florida), I'd be happy. Anything more would
Back at the hotel in Key West, we joined our fellow Cayman Caravaners for
dinner and got our briefing for the over-Cuba flight to Grand Cayman in the
Hello, Havana Center...
Wednesday morning, we were back at the Key West airport for our flight to
Grand Cayman. The Cayman Caravan is organized to launch groups of four aircraft
every 15 minutes. Our group included a Navajo, a Commanche, an Arrow and
ourselves (the lone Cessna in a Piper-dominated group). We launched on schedule
at 10:00 a.m. EDT, picked up our IFR clearance from Navy Key West Departure,
were handed off to Miami Center, and cleared direct TADPO, flight-planned
route, maintain 12,000'.
Trimmed and leaned for cruise, autopilot engaged, altitude hold and nav tracking
on, dual GPSs mapping our progress toward Cuba. Miami handed us off to Havana
Center, whose English was surprisingly good. (Somehow, Joe and I were expecting
the Cuban controller to sound like Ricky Ricardo saying, "Lucy, jou've got
a lot of 'splainin' to do!")
Glitch Number Two
About the same time we spotted the Cuban mainland
in the distance, Joe and I also noticed that we were starting to diverge
from our course line on both GPS moving maps. It didn't take long to figure
out what was wrong: the attitude gyro had spilled about 30 degrees from the
horizontal, and the autopilot was trying to fly the tumbled gyro.
Vacuum failure? No, the vacuum gauge was still in the green and both orange
buttons were pulled in, indicating that both pumps were functioning fine.
And the HSI (which uses a vacuum-driven heading gyro) was also working just
fine. Looked like a failed attitude gyro. Oh, great!
I disengaged the autopilot and started hand-flying the aircraft, turning
back to intercept the airway. Flying over Cuba seemed like the wrong place
to get too far off course. I found the tilted horizon incredibly distracting
and finally covered it up with a Post-It Note.
Meantime, I started assessing the seriousness of the problem. The weather
to the Caymans was supposed to be good VFR, so no problem continuing the
flight. Odds were that the return trip to Key West would also be VFR. But
then Joe was scheduled to jump ship at Miami and I'd be flying the rest of
the way to the west coast solo. Was I prepared to tackle that without attitude
indicator or autopilot? No, I didn't think so. I resolved to have the AI
looked at during the week I'd be spending in Boca Raton.
I periodically peeked at the AI under the Post-It Note as the flight progressed
to see how it was doing. It managed to correct from a 30º tilt to a
15º tilt but that seemed to be about the best it could manage. I covered
it back up and continued to hand-fly the airplane.
After a bit less than two hours, we arrived at Grand Cayman, which miraculously
popped up in the middle of the Caribbean right where the GPSs said it would
be. (Lucky thing, too...if we missed it, the next land on that course was
Venzuela!) As I turned short final, I noticed that the attitude indicator
was finally perfectly aligned with the natural horizon. Big help!
The ensuing week in the Cayman Islands was absolutely fabulous, but that
story will have to wait for another article. Suffice it to say that the
malfunctioning gyro didn't come up in conversation even once during Caymans
Welcome to Florida...
The week passed much too quickly, and Tuesday morning we were out at the
airplane ready to depart for the mainland. Our plan was to fly back to Key
West to clear U.S. customs and return our rented raft and lifejackets, then
fly to Miami International to drop Joe at his airline connection, and finally
hop over to Boca Raton where I'd be spending the next week on business.
It was Joe's leg to fly, with me handling nav and comm duties. On takeoff
from Grand Cayman, the attitude indicator initially appeared to be malfunctioning
(no surprise there), but shortly thereafter it erected properly and seemed
to be behaving. Joe elected to hand-fly the airplane anyway, rather than
trust the suspect gyro by engaging the autopilot. We left the instrument
uncovered and it continued to stay aligned.
We breezed through customs at Key West (they seem to like the Caravan folks)
and launched for Miami with me in the left seat. Again, the attitude gyro
seemed to be well-behaved (and our field-repaired vacuum pump was still hanging
in there, too), so I tried the autopilot and it behaved perfectly as well.
We landed at MIA and Joe sped off in the Signature shuttle van to catch his
airline flight. I reluctantly purchased 40 gallons of $3.00/gallon avgas
rather than pay Signature's $35.00 ramp fee (grrr!), and departed with a
VFR clearance moments before a big thunderstorm reached the airport. Welcome
to Florida! Fifteen minutes later, I was on the ground at Boca Raton. Once
again, the attitude gyro appeared to work flawlessly.
Fix It...or Ignore It?
That evening, I debated with myself whether or not to pull the gyro and send
it to the instrument shop. It had worked fine from Grand Cayman to Key West
to Miami to Boca Raton. But somehow I didn't trust it anymore, and Murphy's
Law dictated that the next time it failed would be at the most inopportune
moment possible. In the end, I decided to yank the instrument, which I did
the next morning (without even having to borrow any tools) and couriered
it off to the J. D. Chapdelaine instrument shop at Fort Lauderdale Executive.
That turned out to be a good decision. JDC's technician reported that he
couldn't get the AI to spin up at all when he applied 2.5" of vacuum, and
that it would just barely spin with a full 5" of vacuum. The gyro spindle
bearings were definitely in very bad shape. I thought back and realized that
this instrument had last been overhauled about 8 years ago, just prior to
the time the right vacuum pump was last replaced! So those spindle bearings
were fully depreciated, too.
Lesson #4: When making a fix-or-ignore decision on-the-road, go with your
gut feelings. They're usually right.
The shop had a yellow-tagged AI of the same kind on the shelf for $360 exchange,
and I said I'd take it. It arrived by courier and I installed it in the airplane
Wednesday over lunchtime.
Glitch Number Three
Thursday I was scheduled to attend a tradeshow at Cocoa Beach with
AVweb publisher Carl Marbach and
another associate, followed by a VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Flight Center
at Cape Canaveral. This involved a one-hour flight from Boca Raton to Merrit
Island, a perfect shakedown cruise for the new attitude gyro.
The flight to Merrit Island was lovely and the AI and autopilot behaved
perfectly. But a new glitch appeared: the right EGT needle barely registered
on takeoff, although the engine was obviously running just fine. For the
rest of the flight, the right EGT was completely dead.
Three equipment failures in one trip! This set a new all-time record for
my 310, which had always been incredibly reliable. I decided that my
normally-hangared airplane was trying to get back at me for leaving it outside
in the humidity and rain. I also decided that the EGT gauge wasn't a serious
enough problem to worry about, and decided to let it go until I got back
home to California.
Lesson #5: Don't sweat the small stuff.
By the time we were done with our Cape Canaveral tour, there was a monster
thunderstorm and spectacular lightning show over the Cape. We called a cab
to take us back to Merrit Island airport, not knowing whether or not we'd
be able to get out. Surprisingly, when we arrived at the airport, the weather
was sunny...but with big storms visible in several directions. A look at
the DTN weather machine made it clear that the weather was in a line along
the east coast of Florida, and that we ought to have smooth sailing back
to Boca Raton by heading inland a bit.
As we headed out to the airplane, Carl
(who is a seasoned Florida pilot) said to me, "I think we better leave
now!" I nodded and started my walk-around. "I don't think you
understood what I meant," Carl said with a parental scowl. "We better leave
now! No pre-flight, no run-up. NOW!"
We jumped in and fired up. As we were about to taxi onto the runway, unicom
called to advise that Patrick AFB (8 miles southeast of Merrit Island) had
just evacuated the control tower due to 70-knot winds! Welcome to Florida!
It still looked fine at Merrit Island, so we took off and turned east toward
the blue skies. ATC gave us our IFR clearance aloft and was extremely cooperative
with our requested weather deviations. The flight back to Boca Raton was
uneventful, except that the right EGT was still DOA.
And Yet Another Glitch
My week in Boca Raton came and went, and Tuesday morning I was out at the
airport to launch for Independence, Kansas. I had managed to schedule a visit
to the Cessna single-engine facility and
a test-flight of the new 1997 Cessna 182S Skylane
The runup at Boca Raton was fine, the vacuum pump was still working (amazing!),
the attitude indicator erected properly, and all seemed right with the world.
Until about 30 seconds after takeoff.
It was then that I engaged the autopilot in preparation for picking up my
IFR clearance from Palm Beach Departure. Or at least I tried to engage the
autopilot. But it wouldn't engage! I checked the breakers but none were popped.
I checked the electric trim and it was working. But I couldn't get the autopilot
to come on-line. No sign of life whatsoever.
Lesson #6: If you plan on using the autopilot, pre-flight it on the ground,
After a few moments of denial, I quickly decided that the autopilot was a
no-go item for a coast-to-coast solo flight. Hand flying might have been
fine for Charles Lindbergh, but not for me. Call me a wuss, but I know my
limits. I turned around and landed at Boca. Hobbs meter time for the flight:
I taxied over to the radio shop at Boca Raton and explained my predicament
to the shop manager. After verifying that the autopilot indeed would not
engage and that there was no obvious cause, he suggested that I fly the airplane
to Fort Lauderdale Executive, where the avionics shop at Banyan Air Service had "the best
Cessna 400B autopilot man in all of South Florida." Sounded like a plan to
Fifteen minutes later, I touched down at FXE and got progressive taxi
instructions to Banyan's avionics
shop. They were expecting me, and I was quickly introduced to their autopilot
tech, Sam Amberson, who (I learned) had been named "Avionics Technician of
the Year" by the FAA in 1996.
Sam quickly pulled the autopilot computer and control head from the airplane
and set them up on the bench. They worked fine. That meant that the problem
was in the airplane somewhere. My heart sank. This could turn out to be a
troubleshooting nightmare. It was now noon, so I headed off to the airport
greasy spoon while Sam had his brown-bag lunch. By the time I got back from
lunch, Sam had the airplane in the hangar, the black boxes back in the airplane,
and schematics spread out on the wing. At first, he suspected a problem with
the yoke disconnect switch, but that was quickly eliminated. Next, he suspected
a problem with the attitude gyro pickoff (I had mentioned that the gyro had
been changed out two hours earlier, but that the autopilot had worked fine
during the shakedown flight).
Sam pulled the glareshield and checked the autopilot-to-gyro cable. Suddenly,
the autopilot started working. Sam determined that by wiggling the cable,
he could make the problem appear and disappear almost at will. After some
further pushing and prodding, Sam concluded that the connector on the
autopilot-to-AI cable was intermittent. He had another connector in stock
(a higher-quality one than the one in the airplane) and, using a propane-fired
soldering pencil, he installed the new connector and functionally checked
the autopilot. It worked solidly now, despite all the cable- and
connector-wiggling Sam could manage. Sam pronounced the system healthy and
buttoned up the glareshield.
The tab: about $150, including parts, labor and tax. A bargain, I thought.
A less-experienced technician might have taken days to find and fix this
intermittent. Sam's the man!
Lesson #7: Sometimes, you get lucky.
By now, it was 3:00 pm EDT and convective activity was starting to explode
throughout the southeastern states. It didn't take me long to conclude that
the better part of valor would be to stay overnight at FXE and launch for
Kansas first thing in the morning. Banyan got me a crew rate at the Sheraton
and I took a courtesy van over and checked in. I phoned my contact at Cessna
to tell him I'd be delayed. "General aviation, you know," I joked.
Four Glitches Are Enough!
I'm happy to report that the autopilot glitch was the last...for this trip,
anyway. I made it non-stop from Fort Lauderdale to Independence in 5+20 without
further incident. And I flew the new Skylane...boy,
is it ever quiet! The next day, I hopped over to Wichita for a short meeting,
then flew 2+45 to Albuquerque for fuel and lunch, and finally 3+45 to Santa
Maria, California...home at last! The right EGT remained dead...I'll deal
with it this week...but the vacuum pump hung in there (knock me over with
a feather!) and everything else worked fine.
Thanks for riding along. Those long-distance solo flights get lonely.