Well, fuck...

Hi folks -

So I wrote last week that I was gearing up to do my solo flight, and today was going to be the day. Weather was good, winds - while a bit more than I would have preferred - were reasonable, and the plane I normally fly [N8249B] was available. Hell, even while I was pre-flighting and doing run-up, my instructor was putting his endorsement stickers in my log book. That’s where I was.

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Normally when a student is ready to do the first solo flight, the instructor will ride with him/her through a handful of laps around the pattern, just to make sure there isn’t any last-minute issues to deal with. While I still have some things to work on, I was lining up to be just fine (I still flare high, but he’s not concerned about that).

So, we’re climbing out on the third lap and at about 300 feet, there’s a loud pop/bang and a couple of flashes of light under the cowling and the engine starts running rough. He grabs the plane, I verify he’s got it, and he does an emergency landing on the runway behind us. We’re able to taxi back under limited power.

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My first fear is that I left something in the engine box during the preflight that somehow got sucked into the rotating parts. Then, as I had to add a couple of quarts of oil, I feared that I inadvertently overfilled it, causing the issue. In the end, it turns out that a hole was blown in the #4 cylinder jug. And that was that.

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I asked him: “How many more laps were you going to have me do before going?” “Two or three.” So that was close.

Some thoughts:

At no part did I fear for my life. I mean, yes, I was scared and adrenaline was certainly going, but I was not panicking. While the instructor agreed that our lives weren’t in danger, they were close to it. It would have been a different scenario if there had been a fire.

It took a few seconds for me to comprehend what’s going on. Yes, we’ve done power-off landings, and I know that things can go to shit at any time, but there was a period of “What the fuck, is this actually happening?”

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The instructor was able to turn and execute a landing on the active runway, largely because while we were missing a cylinder, we still had power. Of course, he had ATC clear any traffic. If it were me, I’d have landed straight out in the marshland northwest of the runway. But that’s what two orders of magnitude of experience does.

As we were walking back to the office, he mentioned that there’s still a little time to get another Cherokee and go back out. I told him that my head wasn’t in it, right now. That being said, I’ll schedule something for this week (Tuesday or Thursday). If nothing else, I might be doing more frequent lessons so I can catch the elusive day with cooperating winds. No plans on giving up now.

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I am bummed because I really liked that plane. I know it will be back in service eventually, and that there are other Cherokee’s out there, but this one felt right.

ETA: He told me that I might have taken 10 years off the end of my life. I responded that he might be right, but those are the wheelchair-bound, adult diaper years, so they can have ‘em. That got a laugh.

Regardless, we lived to fly another day, and that’s what’s important.