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Near Disaster - July 1968

It’s late afternoon on a hot July day at VNY Airport.  I pull out the dipstick.  The 1964 C172, 28R, is more than a quart low on oil.  I’m in a hurry to get up into the cooler air.  Unscrewing the cap on a quart plastic container of oil I’m distracted by Sue standing there watching me.  In a bright red mini-dress, she is a tall, lean, dark eyed beauty.

Alas, I’m married to Janice and Sue is married to Matt.  Had I made a mistake in pursuing Janice instead of Sue?  I had made that conscious choice 6 years earlier.  Matt and Sue were good friends.  We did fun things together.  But here 35 years later, I still have a vision of Sue in that red dress.

Got to get that quart of oil into 28R so the four of us can be on our way to San Diego.  The adventure for this day was a flight down to Lindbergh Field and dinner at Boom Trenchards.  In the 1964 C172, with its 6 cylinder, 145 HP, Continental engine, the oil fill cap was separate from the dipstick, each with separate cowl access covers.  The oil fill access was at the top of the engine and at a high point on the cowl.  I dumped the quart of oil in.  Then went over to the trash barrel to dispose of the quart container.  On return I slapped down the oil filler cowl access over.  What I forgot to do was replace the engine oil cap, which hidden from my view, was chained captive to the engine.  I didn’t take the time to visually check the security of the cap.  I was in a hurry to get flying.  This omission could have dramatically altered or ended our lives that day.  Once again, luck was on my side.

How many times in my early flying episodes would I get away with such inattention to detail?  How many times would luck go my way?  None of us that fly know the answer to these questions.  Maybe there is an angel that follows us as we go through the learning by doing process.

Down the coast we cruise at 5500 in the clear sky.  Over Oceanside VORTAC I notice a drop of fluid on the bottom edge of the windshield.  This drop does on evaporate.  I check the gauges.  Oil temperature and pressure are normal.  “Nothing to be concerned about,” I tell myself.

Our landing at Lindbergh Field is normal.  Entering the FBO’s area, a young lady is directing us to a parking spot.  I pull in and shut down the engine.  She runs over to my side of the plane.  I pop the side window open.  Excited she yells, “Did you make an emergency landing!?”.  “No, why do you ask.”  “Look at your airplane!  It is covered with oil!”  We climb out of 28R.  Starting on a line just below the windows of 28R the airplane was totally covered with a thin coat of black oil.  I was overcome by a sick sinking feel.  Being the cool collected Gary Cooper (my childhood idol) type, I played down the danger we had escaped using few words.  “Yep, the oil temperature and pressure was normal throughout the flight.” I contended, “No problem.  All is well.”  Or is it?

I tell the line girl we will be back in 2 hours.  I fill out a fuel order to top her off, both fuel and oil.

At dinner I can not eat but a few bites forced down.  That sick, queasy, guilt ridden feeling has me internally petrified.  What would old Coop do?  Be masculine.  Be calm.  Keep everyone at ease.  So I continued to play the part of Gary Cooper.  I was the older, wiser, one.  At age 31 I am eight years older than any of them.  I’m tall.  I’m an US Army commissioned officer.  I put on an act of knowing.  Never mentioned how I felt or how I understood the earlier flight danger.  “Yep, no problem, oil pressure and temperature normal.”  I wonder what they are thinking.  No one voices any concern.

Back at the FBO 28R is topped off.  “Sir, she took 6 and ¾ quarts of oil to top her off.”  There was only 1 and ¼ quart remaining when we landed.  Hmmm, the aircraft engine oil pumps draw oil via a tube stuck low in the sump.  They will continue to pump oil to the main bearings until the oil quantity in the sump gets very low.  Then, no oil pressure.  No oil pressure and no oil pumped to the bearings.  No oil pumped to the bearing, it’s likely the bearings will seize.  Then you are “dead stick” (From the early days of aviation, the “stick” is the propeller.  “Dead stick” means the propeller is not turning or the engine has lost all power.)  How close had we come to that catastrophic point on that day?

A long pre-takeoff check is performed to develop confidence that the engine is going to take us home, 1 hour and 20 minutes to the north.  We make it home without any hint of a problem.  Thank you Lord.

What did I take away from this experience?  Any fluid appearing on the windshield that doesn’t evaporate is to be taken very seriously.  The next time such a fluid appeared was many years later.  Departing VNY there is was!  "VNY Tower, Beechcraft 78T returning for landing."  "Any problem there 78T"  "Yeah, some oil on the windshield.  Returning to check it out."  "Roger 78T, make right traffic 16R, report downwind."

Happily that event was only due to a minor leak at one of the pushrod covers.