What Went Wrong and What Went Right

Thanksgiving started out OK. 

My wife and I were taking the airplane from Wisconsin to Colorado to see our son, who moved out there in May. It was his first Thanksgiving in his new house, and we were invited. We took off on a beautiful CAVU day around 8 a.m. Smooth air, blue skies, and (unfortunately) 30 knots of headwind right on the nose.  

Three hours and 30 minutes later, we landed at Omaha (Eppley Field) and pulled into TacAir. The gas is expensive there, but the service is amazing. We gassed and filed a new IFR flight plan from OMA to FNL (Loveland, Colorado). Turbulence was forecast below 8,000 feet, so we filed for 10,000. Another 30 knots right on the nose. 

About 20 minutes after takeoff and a leisurely climb, there was a loud bang, the engine started misfiring, and it felt like it would shake right off the airplane. Fortunately, I knew the drill: Throttle back to idle, autopilot from altitude hold to attitude hold, prop forward, mixture rich, alternate air on, and switch fuel tanks.  

Did anything happen? No. 

Turn off left mag. Engine calm.  

I turned on the left mag — engine back to rough.  

Mag back off, and I slowly added power and started a 180-degree turn back to Eppley. By now, I had lost about a thousand feet and Omaha departure had already called. I told them I blew my left mag and we were returning to OMA.  

They asked if I wanted to declare an emergency and I said not at this time. Since we had a 30-knot tailwind, we were safely on the ground in about 10 minutes, taxiing back to TacAir.  

There were no available mechanics on the field at Eppley anywhere, but someone recommended that I call Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the river. They were unbelievably good to me. They had a mechanic drive over in 20 minutes. I told him what happened, and he pulled the left mag. It was filled with carbon dust and the nylon gear had two teeth missing. The mechanic said one word: “Toast.” 

I asked him what we do next, and he said that this being the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he didn’t think that he could get one flown in before Thanksgiving. But there was an engine shop just a few minutes away. He took my mag and drove over there, and about an hour later he was back with my mag, overhauled and ready to go. I was unbelievably lucky — if you can call blowing a magneto at 10,000 feet “lucky.” 

He reinstalled it in my plane, I ran it up, and all was well. It was too late to continue the flight, as it was getting dark, so we checked into a hotel till the next morning. Unfortunately the weather changed, and we were forced to come home due to ice in the Colorado forecast. While disappointed, we (and our plane) were OK. We Zoomed with our son and returned home. 

Back at home, I pulled out my engine and airframe logbooks to learn about the mag. The last time they were inspected and overhauled was 10 years (and 1,000 hours) ago. They are supposed to be inspected every 500 hours. 

So what happened? The pre-purchase inspection didn’t catch this, and my last annual inspections didn’t catch it, either. And neither did any of the annuals in the last few years before I purchased the airplane. However, I did handle it right in-flight, and the outcome was only disappointment, some wasted money, and a lost holiday trip.