Fabian R Lischka bio photo

Fabian R Lischka

Buenos Aires, Moers, Karlsruhe, Warwick, London, Palo Alto, Hong Kong; Goldman, Credit Suisse, HackerSchool, metric system, The Economist.

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So, on 8 April 2006 I flew with a friend (pilot, too) in a brand new (2005) Cessna 172 SP (180 hp) with Garmin G1000 glass cockpit from Palo Alto, California (KPAO) to Santa Barbara (KSBA), about 210 NM south. At that time I had some 110 hours. Weather in Palo Alto was, as usual, wonderful; Santa Barbara had - as often - some clouds, but they're usually just along the hills, not over the sea. The forecast was "sky clear", compare these METARs:

KPAO 082347Z 32007KT 30SM SCT055 BKN180 18/05 A3010
KPRB 082353Z AUTO 21007KT 10SM CLR 18/06 A3006
KSBA 082353Z 26010KT 10SM OVC034 17/09 A3008 RMK AO2 SLP185 T01670089 10167 20139 56016
KSBA 090053Z 28008KT 10SM CLR 16/08 A3007 RMK AO2 SLP181 T01610078

(That is: Palo Alto at 23:47 Zulu (UTC) on 8 April: Wind 7 Knots from 320 degrees, Visibility 30 statute miles, scattered clouds at 5500 feet, broken clouds at 18000, temperature 18 degrees Celsius, dew point 5 degrees Celsius, altimeter (QNH) 30.10 inch mercury.)

Here's a map. Oceano (L52) in the centre (untowered, purple, close to the sea), San Luis Obispo (KSBP) a bit north, Paso Robles (KPRB) the class D airport on the northern edge. Santa Barbara (with its class C airspace SFC-40 hundred feet) ist just visible on the southern edge.

So, there we were, having flown south for some 2 hours at 9500 feet. We had passed Paso Robles (KPRB), and were approaching San Luis Obispo. My copilot suggested to do a few touch-and-goes there, but I was somewhat concerned as it was about to get dark, and we had another 60 NM (half an hour) to go - and I am not particularly fond of night landings in Santa Barbara: One one side you have the mountains (well, hills - a chain along the coast up to about 3500 feet - definitely higher than traffic pattern altitude...), on the other side you have the dark sea. Tower will normally give 15R to single engine planes, which doesn't have any visual approach aid (VASI or PAPI) and is pointing south towards the sea - so, first you fly downwind towards the hills (feels good), then on the baseleg parallel to them, then turn right towards the sea for your final - and if you go around (because you're too high, say), you fly over the dark sea without any visual reference for your turn to crosswind...

We did agree then to have a few touch-and-go landings in Oceano (L52), an uncontrolled field close to the beach that I had always wanted to go to. We were, by now, only a few miles away, and I initiated a somewhat steep descent - foolishly with nearly completely retracted throttle (danger of shock cooling). We were under VFR flight following/radar service, and told ATC about our intentions to land at Oceano. Radar service was terminated, and we were advised to check in again when we were ready to continue to Santa Barbara. I switched over to the Oceano CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency). The field has nearly zero elevation, TPA (traffic pattern altitude) about 1000 feet, no traffic, and no UNICOM either with field advisories on the frequency. To get a picture about wind, active runway etc., I planned to overfly the field at about 2000 feet, so I slowed down the descent at 2200 feet. As the speed decreases, I slowly open throttle - alas, to no effect whatsoever, except some rough engine noises at constantly low RPM.

This was a rather memorable feeling, I must say (as so many firsts). I gave full throttle and announce "engine failure!". My copilot thinks I'm suggesting an exercise, and (somewhat bored) starts giving the engine failure checklist. I initiate the ABC (air speed, best field, cockpit checks), bring the machine to 68 knots, and manage (being more emphatic) to convince my copilot that I am serious. He starts looking for the field, and fortunately soon has Oceano in sight. In the mean time, I have completed the cockpit checks: fuel selector - both, fuel shutoff valve - full in, throttle - full in, mixture - full rich (it was still fairly lean from the high altitude flying - good to keep the engine hot, and at first I am relieved and push it in, full rich - but the engine doesn't rev up), fuel pump - on, magnetos - check left/right.

The engine's still gargling at under 1000 RPM, and I concentrate on the approach. Field is in sight, and by now we're (fortunately) a bit high on a straight-in approach. Full Flaps. Wind seems quiet. I ask my copilot to make radio calls - he transmits our intentions and mayday call on the CTAF. We hadn't heard any other traffic on the frequency, and didn't know the wind direction (only the one in nearby San Luis Obispo, whose ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) we had listened to). We're quite fast and high by now, with full flaps, and I put the nose down to get the speed just at the top of the white bar and fly some coordinated S-curves to bleed off speed (slipping isn't recommended with the Cessna 172 with full flaps, as it can lead to elevator oscillations). I consider shutting down the engine (not that it contributed much anyway), fuel flow and electrical systems, as suggested for forced landings, to mitigate the dangers of a crash landing. However, we're on a fairly good and controlled approach now, and I don't really know the characteristics of a windmilling or standing propeller, and I would rather keep the control of flaps, so I let the systems run.

Soon we fly over the numbers, just a tad fast, spot on center, and thanks to full flaps bleed off speed quickly and touch down in a nice and controlled manner in the first third of the runway (which has some 2500 feet), and exit it (without being too hard on the brakes) even before the last taxiway.

Having arrived on the apron we experimented a bit with throttle, magnetos, and other controls, but never got RPM above 1000. We shut everything down, and called ATC to report our safe landing and cancel the emergency call. Then we called our flight school to arrange repair of the aircraft. As it turned out later, the fuel transducer was transmitting wrong measurements, and the fuel mixture was far too rich. In fact, just possibly having reduced the mixture might have fixed the problem - but it wasn't part of the checklist, and in the situation didn't occur to us.

The very friendly guy living next to the airport got us some pizza, and called us a cab to the next hotel. Was a good night's sleep.