It started out as a routine training flight. I met my student at the airport and, after reviewing the procedures we’d be working on in the air, we went out to preflight the airplane. Preflight was normal. As he is a new student on his 2nd lesson, I walked through the preflight with him. He did fine and soon we were starting and beginning our taxi.
I noticed that the engine seemed to run a bit rough below 1000RPM, but not excessively so. At 1000RPM it smoothed out. Run up was normal. The only thing I noticed was that the suction gauge was reading a little low. Again, nothing that would cause alarm on a VFR flight, just something to tell the mechanics when we returned. We taxied out to the runway and began our takeoff roll.
My routine is to have the student call out, “Engine Instruments, in the green” once at full power, and then “Airspeed alive” when the airspeed indicator begins to register. Everything appears normal. At 55KIAS, the 172 lifts off, new student doing fine. At about 300′ AGL things begin to get, well, interesting. That’s when we both heard and felt the shuddering of the engine. It started out simply like rough running. I quickly check the fuel selector, mixture, throttle, carb heat, mags, master, primer. All ok. The roughness starts increasing to what I would call “moderate”. This all of this happens in about 5-7 seconds.
Sensing that Murphy is about to become a third passenger, I pitch us up to Vx and tell him simply, “Climb” We still have power, rough and weak though it is, and we’re way too low to turn back. I want pattern altitude and more options. I realize there are not a lot of places to set down in front of me.
As we turn crosswind, I hear another plane call base. I mentally note it. I may have to butt in line…
I held my breath and prayed for pattern altitude, 1600 feet. Good. Got it. “Level here. Leave the power alone.”
So we gain speed and about midfield, I give the OK to ease back on the throttle. I am hesitant to change power settings, sometimes that’s when more problems begin to show themselves. I was right, because as he eased back a few hundred RPMs…
WHAM! The engine bangs, then coughs, and sputters and catches again.
“I’ve got it,” I say. Keying the mic I announce a precautionary landing and ask my friend (I happened to know him) in the other plane now on final to break it off. He gladly does as I reduce the power to idle. The vibrations diminish. Luckily now I have altitude and options. Since I’m past mid-field this becomes simply a power off approach. Except I know it’s real.
I want to turn base early but fight the urge, “Too high. Fly it RIGHT” I mutter to myself. I wait a few more seconds and turn base. I have the field made and begin working in the flaps. Turn to final. Crap. I’m high. I begin a forward slip and the glide path begins to look better. I keep the slip in until the very end. The airspeed is on the money. Round out and flare are just the way I want them to be. It was good to be on terra firma. As my father-in-law is prone to say, “The more firma, the less terra” (Get it? “The more firmer, the less terror”…he’s a pun guy, what can I say?)
I recount this because it shows us why the fundamentals are so important. Sometimes students (and maybe instructors too) feel a little bored by the basic maneuvers. But look at the basic skills used in this flight:
Maintaining Vy then Vx. Flying a precise pattern. Understanding the “key” position. Judging glide path. The forward slip. Radio procedures. “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” A memorized checklist.
I don’t know what’s up with the engine. Things could have been a lot worse if all power had been lost at 300′. I feel lucky. Fortunate. Blessed. All of the above. But I’m really thankful for my instructors who taught me many years ago to stay calm, work the problem, and fly the plane.