Saved by a 17-year-old flight-school lesson

To the Editor:
It was a small independent flight school. One man was the chief instructor as well as the lead mechanic. 

Beside flying, he wanted his pilots to have a working knowledge of the mechanics of the airplane as well.

It was a brief discussion of the magneto timing and throttle operation. Should the timing gear of a magneto start to deteriorate, the engine might start running rough and possibly stop.

Should I notice these signs early, I could keep the engine running intermittently by changing magneto selection on the mag switch, while at the same time adjusting the throttle. This could give me enough time to find a place to land.

On this cold wintry day in 1960, I acknowledged this information not thinking I would ever use it, until 17 years later.

My student and I in a Cherokee 140 had just taken off from the north runway at Poestenkill when I noticed the engine starting to run rough. I switched to the left magneto when there was a loud backfire, switching back to both then to the right magneto and back again; this only allowed for intermittent engine operation, before backfiring, which led to a complete and momentary loss of power.

Adjusting the power and switching from one magneto to the other I was able to keep the engine running in spurts.

My next problem: I was only 300 feet above ground level, 500 feet below our normal operating traffic pattern. The other problem was airspeed. During engine spurts I could hold 80 miles per hour; between spurts I would be down to 70 miles per hour.

Considering the normal cruise speed was 110 mph, this was all the more reason to keep the engine running as long as I could. Roads and farmers’ fields around the airport were cluttered with traffic or farm machinery. My only hope was to get back to the airport.

It was work but I was able to get the airplane around the pattern onto the final approach where the engine faltered for the last time,  before stopping completely.

After touching down on the runway we had just departed, I removed the toe bar from the baggage compartment. My student and I towed the airplane off the runway to the ramp.

After removing the back of each magneto, our aircraft mechanic discovered that the timing gear on both magnetos was sorely deteriorated.

Well, the airplane was in one piece, my student was happy, and judging by my soaked shirt I am sure I lost some weight on this trip.

All this thanks to that little conversation some 17 years earlier.

E. A. Chevrette Jr.


Editor’s note: E.A. Chevrette Jr. is the author of the book, “Wings of Fortune: Personal Tales from the ‘Golden Age of General Aviation.’” Three years ago, he was featured in an Enterprise podcast.

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