No matter how many times I fly to Oshkosh for the annual EAA Fly-In, the experience never seems to be entirely routine. My trip to Oshkoah in 1993 was a perfect example. Severe storms, IFR weather, a serious mechanical problem, and an unplanned visit to Canada made it one Oshkosh I'll never forget.
January 1, 1996
Oshkosh is always exciting. My trip to Oshkosh 1993 in my Mooney
with two pilot buddies was no exception.
It has become a bit of a tradition for me to arrive at Oshkosh
a few days early in order to get a front row in the "North
Forty" airplane camping area and to volunteer with aircraft
parking during the peak arrival period. We made an uneventful
flight from Burlington, Vermont, to Oshkosh, with a fuel and lunch
stop in Saginaw, Michigan. My two pilot friends and I were excited
about our upcoming ten day vacation.
We landed in Oshkosh in mid-afternoon five days before the official
opening of the convention in what appeared to be a sleepy, under-utilized
mid-western airport. The rains that had plagued the Midwest all
spring and summer affected central Wisconsin as well. The grass
taxiways used during the convention were soft and several of the
traditional camping areas were unusable. About 25% of the camping
area was lost.
By the time we tied down the Mooney snugly and set up our large
Sears family-size tent, our stomachs (still on Eastern Daylight
Time) were calling for fuel. Five days before the show opens the
food tents are not in operation. So we hitched a ride to our traditional
arrival night restaurant, Friar Tuck's, located just outside the
airport boundary. After dinner we walked the mile back to our
The summer cumulus was building and the sky filled with boiling
clouds just as darkness set in. We settled into our sleeping bags
with reading lamps and the few flying magazines we had brought.
We knew in a few days we would have piles of brochures and trial
subscriptions to every major flying publication.
The joys of tent camping
Light rain started falling about 10 PM. Within an hour the thunderstorms
started rolling by one after another. The rain was moderate to
heavy. The wind peaked at about 30 to 40 knots. Rain came horizontally
through our "Sears Best" tent like it was a screen door.
Over the years we had learned to put our clothing and gear in
plastic bags as insurance against just such events.
The lightning lasted all night, from 10 PM to 9 in the morning.
As we lay there in our aluminum frame tent in the middle of a
field, at times the lightning flashes and thunder were separated
by only milliseconds. I wondered what it would feel like if lightning
struck our humble abode. I suspected we would feel no pain.
The clouds parted my midday and all the sleeping bags were hung
neatly on the conveniently located snow fences. Our team decided,
no more leaky tents for us. We would solve this problem once and
for all. After $60 worth of polyethylene tarp, 200 feet of 250
lb. test rope, 40 heavy duty 39 cent each tent stakes and 40 feet
of half inch conduit cut to various lengths, we had all the ingredients
to set up an elaborate, albeit ugly, home-brew tent fly. Our camp
site looked like a refugee camp, but we were ready for anything.
It didn't work. Two days later, still two days before the "World's
Greatest Aviation Event" opened the excitement meter pegged
again. One of my fellow camper, Jay, had brought along a portable,
battery powered, palm-size Sony Watchman color TV. At 10:00 PM,
I decided to turn on the evening news to get a preview of the
next day's weather. Due to semiconductor technology and miniaturization,
I was now able to hear and see in my tent, in living color, a
level 5 storm 25 miles west of Oshkosh moving east at 25 knots.
I woke up my fellow campers and told them we would be hit by a
storm in one hour. The weatherman was right and the little Sony
did not lie. One hour later the three of us were holding down
our tent for all we were worth. Our "Sears Best" tent
poles could not take the stress and bent or broke in four places.
Hundreds of other newly arrived Oshkosh fly-in campers suffered
a similar fate.
Bunking with the CAP
The Civil Air Patrol, with their dozens of young cadets did a
wonderful job making sure that people were all right. Those with
collapsed tents or soaking wet sleeping bags were taken to the
CAP "barracks" and given bunks with clean sheets and
pillows. After three days and eight hours in Oshkosh it seemed
like the Hyatt Regency. In the morning we learned that 12 planes
had flipped over and numerous commercial display tents destroyed.
But once again, after several hours in the hot Wisconsin sun,
the sleeping bags were dry and ready for action again. Our $60
tarp tent fly did not work. The 1/2-inch conduit plus a $3 roll
of duct tape procured from the fly-market were used to repair
the tent poles.
Oshkosh is always fun, but by Saturday we were getting low on
clean clothes and were lonely for the comforts of home, i.e.,
real rest rooms with showers with doors. We had planned to break
camp on the morning of our departure and ship home our excess
baggage. This way we would not have to push the limit of the Mooney's
gross weight envelope. One problem: If we were to leave on Sunday
we would have to box everything up and get it to the U. S. Postal
Office trailer on the Oshkosh Convention site by 3 P.M. Saturday.
Jay came up with the solution. He suggested, as members of the
Vermont Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, the CAP might let us stay
in their open hangar bunk room one more night.
The plan worked. By 3 P.M. we had shipped six boxes weighing 200
pounds. We would now be comfortably under gross weight, and we
could fill the tanks to the top and fly home non-stop in just
over 4 hours.
Wrong! Our Oshkosh adventure had just begun.
Sunday dawned 800 overcast and 1 1/2 miles visibility. A trip
to the FAA FSS facility on the field suggested the weather would
improve locally to marginal VFR, but an IFR flight plan was most
appropriate for our 4 hour flight home, especially in view of
our planned Lake Michigan crossing. We filed for 10:00 AM departure.
Time for breakfast and time to close-out camping pre-payment fees.
Twenty minutes prior to our departure time I called clearance
delivery on the handheld radio. To our shock and disappointment
we learned that we were number 68 for release.
We were instructed to call back in two hours for a status report
and told we would likely get released in about three hours.
Clearance Delivery was right. While inbound to Oshkosh the IFR
reservation system worked well, there was no such system for IFR
departures. It was strictly first come, first served. Chicago
Center was only releasing 6 IFR flights per hour from Oshkosh.
At that rate, we feared we might need to stretch our welcome with
the Civil Air Patrol. And then the field went VFR. Just barely.
The VFR departures started immediately. While the IFR departure
procedure required an engine start clearance prior to taxi, many
impatient instrument pilots waiting for release, joined the VFR
departure line, hoping to beat the system. When they got to the
front of the line without their IFR release, most just blasted
off VFR in marginal conditions for all points of the compass.
I bet there are a few war stories from pilots leaving Oshkosh
After a three-hour wait, Mooney N201NC was released and twenty
minutes later we were number one for takeoff. With hundreds of
campers watching and listening on their handheld radios, 1 November
Charlie lifted off into the hot, muggy Wisconsin air. In four
hours and five minutes we would be back home in Burlington, Vermont.
Not quite. The Oshkosh Adventure continued.
The big bang
We climbed through the overcast to our assigned 9,000 foot altitude,
breaking out on top passing through 6,000 feet. The Mooney settled
in on a pleasing ground speed of 175 knots with 15 knots attributed
to a tail wind. Lake Michigan passed by uneventfully as did the
state of Michigan. We entered the clouds and went on the gauges
over the western shore of Lake Huron. The air was smooth. Halfway
across the southern part of the Lake, we entered Canadian airspace
and were handed off from Minneapolis Center to Toronto Center.
Shortly after being "radar identified" and cleared direct
to the Waterloo VOR, we heard a loud BANG. The engine noise got
very loud and an abnormal vibration commenced. The oil and fuel
pressures were fine. Both mags were fine. It felt like the four-cylinder
Lycoming IO-360 was running on three cylinders.
I throttled back to approximately 12 inches of manifold pressure
where the level of sound and vibration seemed tolerable. We were
over water on the gauges. I was concerned that our very sick engine
not "give up the ghost" completely. Lose the engine,
lose the vacuum pump. Lose the vacuum pump, and I knew I would
lose the attitude and heading indicator gyros. I thought for a
moment, "This might be it."
ATC to the rescue
I could feel my heart pounding faster and harder. I reminded myself
to fly the airplane. I set up about 90 knots on the airspeed indicator
which yielded about a 500 foot-per-minute descent. I immediately
declared an emergency. "Toronto Center, Mooney N201 NC mayday,
mayday, mayday, we have an emergency. Our engine appears to have
malfunctioned. We have partial power. I don't know how long it
will last. We need a vector to the nearest airport."
Toronto Center responded. "Turn right ten degrees, Centralia
Airport is 1 o'clock and eleven miles." I asked, "How
far is the shoreline.?" The center responded, "Six miles."
I did a quick calculation and concluded that if nothing else broke,
we would make the shoreline. The question now was: would we break
out of the clouds? I asked the center for the weather at our new
destination airport. The center responded they did not have weather
for Centralia, but 25 miles away, at London, Ontario, the weather
was 4,000 overcast.
The controller vectored our crippled Mooney directly over the
airport. We were now at 6,000 feet and still on the gauges.
I told the controller I would circle down to the left and would
he re-vector us if the wind started drifting us away from the
field. After a couple of 360 turns, and small corrections from
the center, we descended to 4500 ft.
The Toronto controller told us they would lose us on radar at
about 4000 ft. and suggested I contact London Tower. His final
words were: "Good Luck, give us a call IF you make it."
I thought to myself that he probably should not have phrased it
quite that way.
I switched to London Tower. The tower controller said he had been
listening to our predicament and had us on an experimental radar
system that had not been commissioned yet. That was reassuring.
As we descended through 4000 ft., Jay, in the back seat, yelled,
"I see the ground!" And perhaps, 20 seconds later, "I've
got the field!"
We were right over the most beautiful ex-Canadian military airport
I have ever seen. With three long runways in a triangular configuration,
my hopes of seeing my family again and not damaging my beloved
airplane, soared. Toronto Center had notified the airport's emergency
services. As we circled down, we could see at least three fire
trucks and two police cars with all their lights flashing, welcoming
After a couple of wide circles of the field, I positioned 1 November
Charlie high on final for runway 16. Gear down, flaps down. a
little slip was all that was needed to put her down right on the
numbers. We rolled out, turned off the runway and shut the airplane
We now had three very relieved campers having made an unplanned
arrival in a foreign country. The fire trucks and police cars
surrounded the plane. The lead Ontario Provincial Police Officer
(OPP) walked up to the plane. I opened the door and asked if we
could get out. He said sure.
After the OPP inspected my pilot's certificate and aircraft registration,
assuring themselves that we were what we appeared to be, they
helped us tie down the plane and drove us to their barracks. The
OPP were terrific. They called customs/immigration and helped
arrange of our "entry" into Canada by telephone.
It was now Sunday at 5 PM and Monday was an Ontario provincial
holiday. The only FBO on the field was locked up tight and was
not due back from Oshkosh until Wednesday. I left instructions
for them to take a look at the engine and diagnose the problem.
I was sure that at a minimum a cylinder would be dead, and perhaps
I would need a complete new engine.
The three of us returned to Burlington the next day commercially
via London, Toronto, Montreal and a rental car.
On Wednesday, I called the good folks at Terry Air to hear the
verdict on 1 November Charlie.
Once again a surprise. The problem was not the engine but rather
the exhaust. The weld on the exhaust pipe flange for cylinder
#3 let go. The loose pipe accounted for the vibration and the
raw, unmuffled exhaust from cylinder #3 accounted for the noise.
The mechanic who made the repair told me that had I not throttled
back, there was a good chance we would have caught on fire. With
the exhaust repaired, I returned to Centralia Huron, Ontario,
paid my bill and flew home.
Oshkosh is always an adventure. I can't wait for next year!