Editor’s Note: John Miller served as an MAF pilot in Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s. The following is an excerpt from one of his support letters detailing some engine trouble he once had in mid-flight.
Thanks to Helen Godschalk for the photos.
It wasn’t fair, really. The news article I was reading was just getting interesting when my passenger turned the page before I had finished skimming it. Mind you, during flight, the pilot has to look outside and check the instruments, too, all while trying to peek out of the corner of his eye and steal a glance at the news magazine on a passenger’s lap. But if your passenger is a speed reader? Forget it. I was just going to have to subscribe.
Trusty Cessna Charlie Papa and occupants had just leveled out at 9,000 feet. We all settled down into the routine 35-minute flight to Sela Valley in the rugged eastern mountains of Papua. Let’s see: trim for cruise, engine cowl flaps closed, fuel selector to fuller tank, engine gauges OK. Now, where was I on that magazine story?
Without warning, the plane began to shake as smoke fumes poured into the cabin.
Since they say in-flight fires are no fun, I quickly shut down the sick engine and watched, fascinated, as a wayward chunk of metal punched a hole in the engine cowling. My not-so-trusty Cessna had just become a powerless glider with two anxious occupants over not-so-friendly real estate below. Yes, I’d say this was definitely turning out to be an abnormal flight with lots of distractions.
The fumes stopped and the banging noises subsided as the powerless engine slowed down. Keying the mic, I announced, “Mayday!” and asked if any MAF pilots were standing by. Jerry immediately responded and I briefed him on the situation. Heeding the advice of Pappy, my first flight instructor (“If the engine comes apart, land and investigate.”), I started on down; Jerry holding my hand by the radio on the other end.
My magazine reading passenger was finding the flight to be more interesting than any literature she had on her lap. Her large eyes inquired, What are you planning to do? By God’s providence, we were within gliding distance of the Holuwan airstrip five miles away. I assured her that we’d be OK and on the ground safely in a few minutes. High, with altitude to spare, we came gliding over the mission station. I never thought an ugly gravel airstrip could look so beautiful.
It was over in seconds. Crossed the end of the runway at 90 with half flaps, touched down a third of the way up the strip and rolled to a quick stop. The sound of silence. Good old terra firma––da firma da better. I keyed the mic and announced, “Charlie Papa on the ground.” Several radio voices chorused, “Praise the Lord!” Amen, I breathed fervently. On such a nice cool day, why was I sweating?
[What had happened? The No. 2 connecting rod had broken in half, thrashing large holes in the engine. Oil had spilled over the hot turbocharger causing the smoke fumes. Also, the rod attach bolts were missing. The plane had a three-foot wide oil slick down each side. Our chief mechanic suspects detonation or metal fatigue. I just suspect something broke!]