Well…we really didn’t have to call May Day! We didn’t actually have to talk to anyone. But when the turbo 210 we were flying lost a big chunk of power a few minutes after takeoff from a small, non-towered airport near Denver, my first instinct was to check the manifold pressure gauge. It indicated around 22 inches. Hmmm…Turbo failure?
The engine seemed quite content to run at that reduced power setting; a scan of the oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder heads and EGTs showed nothing out of the ordinary. There was no odd odor, no smoke, no roughness, no oil splatters on the windscreen. Normal, normal.
So why did the power just drop like that?
When something unusual like this changes things, my first question is a very simple one, and it’s not “What happened?” The answer to that question might or might not come with time. Instead, I’m more concerned with the answer to this question: “What do I have left to fly?”
First, I determine what is working correctly, and therefore, what is available to take me back to the airport, or at least get me safely back on the ground. In this case, I had what appeared to be a normally-running engine attached to an airframe quite capable of flying back to the runway for landing.
At his request, I took control of the aircraft from my client, and turned back toward the airport from which we had just departed, about four miles behind us. The engine continued to run just fine, but just in case something might suddenly change that, I maintained the power setting that the engine had dropped to, stayed a little higher and faster than normal coming into the traffic pattern, and while closely monitoring for any signs of change, flew a close downwind to the runway. This put me in a position to lose what was left of that engine and still make the runway, should that become necessary. In these situations, altitude and airspeed give you time and options; it’s best to give up either one grudgingly, and only after careful thought.
A Cessna 172 was ahead of us, flying much slower, and seemed intent on flying an extended downwind. I wasn’t willing to get that far away from the airport under the circumstances, so I told the Skyhawk pilot on CTAF that I was turning inside of him because of engine difficulty. He responded by offering to do a 360 on the downwind to allow us to take the lead. Nice gesture.
The resulting short approach and landing was uneventful and a few moments later, we pulled the cowling. This was our first flight in the Cessna since it had left the shop for several minor squawks that turned into a couple of weeks of work.
When the right cowl half was removed, the reason for our power loss was immediately obvious: a hose coupling in the induction tunnel had popped off, causing the engine to revert to non-turbocharged power settings. We reattached the hose coupling, talked to the mechanic that had made the mistake, and went right back out to fly that afternoon.
Losing a turbo is not a big deal as long as you’re not over tall rocks or trying to stay out of icy clouds below; the important thing to take away from this incident is the thought process that serves us best when these kinds of “abnormal” occurrences demand our full attention. Sure, determine as much as you can about the “abnormal” situation to make a proper assessment, but then establish what you have left to fly, and make a plan to get back on the ground, keeping your senses open for changes to the plan. Be stingy about altitude and airspeed too, until you can safely throw these life-giving commodities away.
Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.