It promised to be a few months of convenient and fun flying and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Our daughter Belyn is a whitewater river guide on the Rogue River in Oregon. She is also at a point of thinking about what she wants to do long term. We originally were not going to see her much this summer, so we hatched a plan. We get a family discount on river trips so the plan was to sign up on her trips in order to spend some quality time with her. First I would go, then Betsy would go, then the entire family would go as our summer get together. This would normally be a lot of driving back and forth, but with the plane it would be a piece of cake. In addition, the rafting company ARTA has a “guide house” near Grant’s Pass airport, so it would be very convenient to fly in there and just walk over to the guide house.
It wasn’t to be. My annual was due in June (into July), and the first Rogue river trip (mine) was happening in late July. My plane seemed to do well in annual with good compressions in all cylinders and only a few minor items to take care of. Tom my mechanic knew about the trip coming up, so he was putting the plane back together the week prior so I could get it out for a test flight. Then the call came. He had found a crack in the exhaust manifold near the turbo and it had to be fixed. We called around and I was prepared to drive somewhere to have it welded, but it turned out it needed to be replaced. I was grounded.
I flew commercial to Portland, then my flight to Medford was canceled and I finally got on the last flight of the night at 11:00 pm. So instead of a 2 hour flight in the Cessna, the journey via commercial was about 13 hours. I know, pity me that I had to fly commercial. But it did kind of suck. Belyn had been loading all evening for the four day trip, and had to get up extremely early to finish, so I felt guilty because she had to drive over from Grant’s Pass to pick me up.
The Rogue River
The trip was awesome – what a beautiful river with bear, bald eagles, osprey, mink and river otters. I was able to hang out on Belyn’s gear boat and chat for hours.
Next was Betsy’s turn to head up and spend time with Belyn. Tom got the exhaust replaced and I took it up for a 30 minute test flight around the airport the day before we were to leave. The test flight went well with no problems.
The Engine Fire
Both Betsy and I worked all day and we met at the airport at 6:00 pm for her flight to Grants Pass. We packed her stuff, got in the plane and I turned the master (electrical) switch on and listened to the gyros wind up. But some strange static came through the overhead speaker and the electrical aux fuel pump would not come on. Something was wrong. Betsy said, “I think there’s smoke”. Remember, the engine isn’t on at this point, just the master switch. I immediately switched the master off, but I could hear that the gyros were not winding down. What? It isn’t powering off! I cycled the switch but nothing. I pulled the pullable circuit breakers and tried to think how I could get the power off without having to remove the cowl and disconnect the battery which would take some time. I then decided I should probably turn the fuel off and pull the mixture off as we are trained, but the mixture cable was frozen. What the hell? It was seemingly an electrical problem but the mechanical mixture knob would not move? Then Betsy said, “yes, definitely smoke”. Ok, let’s get out. Now.
Once outside Betsy said, “Is it a fire?” I said no, some sort of electrical short but probably not a fire. The gyros were still spinning so I was bewildered on why the power was still on. I opened up the oil access door and peered inside. Flames! “Uh, yes, Bets, it actually is a fire”. I got the fire extinguisher from the cockpit and thankfully it immediately put out the flames. After a few moments the gyros spun down. Betsy looked at me and said, “Its probably not going to be fixed tonight, is it?” I said unfortunately it wasn’t going to be flying for quite some time.
We unpacked her stuff into her car and she took off driving to Oregon for the river trip that started early the next morning. I felt terrible. But I was also thankful it didn’t happen in the air. That kind of fire in the engine compartment would certainly be much much worse with the amount of air that flows through the compartment during flight.
So what happened? A large battery cable that goes from the battery to the coil lays on an aluminum firewall shelf. Either the cable had worn through from the shelf or the mixture cable had worn a hole in it. Either way, a major electrical short occurred and a fire started which burned some cables (thus the frozen mixture cable) and a few small holes in the firewall. Fortunately it didn’t burn any structural members or any rivets in the firewall, so the mechanics were able to patch it without major work.
The Rogue River
Betsy also had a great time on the river with Belyn. She was a little tired from all the driving because we had scheduled everything with flying in mind, not driving. So once off the river in the afternoon she had to jump in the car so she could be at work the next day.
The last trip was coming up. Our son was working at a summer camp and had a few weeks off before school started again so as a way to all be together we planned another river trip with Belyn. Who knows, she maybe was tired of having her parents as guests but we did tip well.
The plan of course was to fly, and Tom worked hard to get the plane patched and put back together. I took it up for a test flight while Tom waited on the ground and as a joke I shut it down and jumped out with a fire extinguisher in my hand. However, there were no fires and he made sure that the new cable was well armored. It was ready to go – again.
Betsy had other ideas. Like not flying for a while. Who could blame her? She knows how serious it could have been had we been in the air. She wants to wait a few flights, without any smoke or fire, before getting back in the plane.
The Rogue River
So we drove and had a wonderful time again, the entire family together. Driving wasn’t bad since we scheduled enough time. It wasn’t nearly as painful as the 13 hour commercial flight – and shorter.
I had moments of frustration when we stopped by the guide house and I saw how close Grants Pass airport was – and realized we did three trips there and I never landed there.
Maybe next year.