Sunday, November 18, 2007

Magneto, Magneto.... (aka "The Long Drive Home")

Yesterday I flew from Gaithersburg down to Charlottesville to see my brother, Dave, then down to Richmond to pick up my sister-in-law, Jessica. Here's my GPS route:

Notice anything interesting? You can see where I started, in the top of the graphic. I flew southwest to Charlottesville, then southeast to Richmond, then northwest, back to Charlottesville. Then I flew.... "Wait a second," you might be thinking, "there's only one flight shown between Charlottesville and Gaithersburg....."

Yep. For the first time in my flying career, I got stranded.

The flight down was beautiful. It's the peak of the leaf season, as you can see in these photos.

Although it was cloudy, it was the beautiful kind of cloudy.

Here's a little video of the flight down to Charlottesville.


I picked David up in Charlottesville, then we took off for Richmond to pick up Jessica. David's in Charlottesville for a month doing a clinical rotation as part of his medical training. Jess flew to Richmond on Southwest Airlines to spend a few days and look the area over as a possible place for them to move. The flight down to Richmond was about a 30-minute flight, saving David about a half hour or so of driving. We picked Jess up without incident, then flew back to Charlottesville while the last remnants of the sunset faded to black.

I had the plane refueled while Dave and Jess got their things together and left, then started the plane and taxied to the runway. I did a quick runup to check the operation of the engine, as I always do before taking off. The airplane has dual magnetos, and part of the runup is to check the operation of the engine while shutting down one of the two magnetos. I shut down the left magneto and everything was fine. Then I switched to the left and shut down the right magneto. The whole plane shook violently while the engine made violent clanking noises. I switched back so that both magnetos were working and everything smoothed out. I tried again, and got the same results. The left magneto had a problem.

The reason for the dual magnetos is simply safety. The magnetos make the spark plugs fire, and with two, parallel systems, the engine will continue to run if something happens to one magneto or some other part of the engine ignition system.

Running on both magnetos, or on just the right, the engine ran fine, and I could have taken off and arrived home safely. On the other hand, I would have been taking off into the dark night, and if the engine had quit, I would not have been able to see a safe place to land. I love flying at night, but I wasn't willing to do so knowing that I didn't have the redundancy of two properly operating ignition systems.

The maintenance person at the FBO was out and couldn't look at the plane until the following morning. I called a few people in my flying clubs to get get advice. A few people were willing to fly down and pick me up. It was only a 2-1/2 hour drive, though. In the end, I was told my flying club would pay for a rental car. The people at the FBO gave me a ride to the Hertz counter at the main terminal and I hit the road for home.

So 30YR sits at the Charlottesville airport. The mechanic will look at it on Monday, and people from my club will have to make a run down to pick it up. I wouldn't mind making that trip, as it's a beautiful flight.

I'm sure this won't be the last time I am stranded somewhere. In fact, if I ever own a plane, I may just keep a sleeping bag in the back as a hedge against this happening again.

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