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Don’t panic… Channel ahoy!

Just about to coast out across the Channel, the engine of Dave White’s Jodel started to vibrate…


It was one of those bemusing conversations you sometimes hear on VHF. Lille Information was dealing with a pilot who was insisting he absolutely was going to land on a runway that Lille was even more adamant didn’t exist.

I was chuckling to myself listening to this confused debate. while preparing in about five minutes to coast out at 4,500ft on my way home from a thoroughly enjoyable solo VFR trip to AERO Friedrichshafen. With 11h 15m in the air over seven legs and a little over 975 nautical miles in France and Germany, banishing memories of lockdown and seeing lots of old friends for the first time in two-and-a-half years. All in all, a most satisfying end to the trip.

Hangared in Le Treport

I was happy that all was checked and I was ready for the Channel crossing when, like flicking a switch, my teeth began to rattle in my head.

Had I flicked a switch, inadvertently?

Nope – both mags were ON, fuel pump ON, fuel’s OK, mixture to fully RICH and carb heat to HOT. Nothing. Maybe it was a magneto – but it never rattles like this on a power check – so let’s try switching those off one at a time. OFF… one… two… ON… and again for the other one.

Nope, no change.

Right, well, that English Channel ahead needs avoiding for a start. And I need to get on the ground smartish, in case whatever it is gets worse. Where’s available?

A glance down to the SkyDemon tablet mounted just below my eyeline, and… oh look, right ahead of me, Eu Mers-Le Tréport just on the coast. OK, that’s where I’m going. Adjust track and look out to find it. Best tell Lille I am diverting.

“Right, that English Channel ahead needs avoiding for a start. And I need to get on the ground smartish…”

But they are still engaging with M’sieu Confused, who is still determined to go to his phantom runway. Wish they’d stop discussing this. I need to talk to Lille and tell them…

Ah, forget it – this is a daft long conversation – I need to catch attention. Wait for a pause in the chat and… “PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN Golf Alpha Yankee Lima Charlie has a rough running engine. I am diverting to Eu Mers, Lima Foxtrot Alpha Echo”.

An immediate – and I mean immediate – response from Lille: “Roger Golf Lima Charlie. The airfield is in your 11 o’clock, 10 miles.”

Fantastic! That is one switched-on cookie at the other end of this chat. I relax a bit (maybe), concentrate on planning an approach and finding the necessary airfield info I will need.

I also get a very short transmission on frequency from friends in an aircraft about 20 minutes ahead of me: “Check mags.” Thanks Tim, appreciated – have done that.

Those hours spent familiarising with the amazing SkyDemon have paid off. Click on LFAE and select ‘Route Direct’. Now I have a heading and a comforting magenta line to follow, just like a real airline pilot…

Another click on the airfield, and select the ‘Information’ option. Up comes the airfield plate so I have runway directions. Oh, and it’s 900m paved, sweet, and a frequency. Ah, Air-to-Air in French only – OK, that’s workable and… ah, whatever. I’m going there regardless.

“Those hours spent familiarising with the amazing SkyDemon paid off”

By now I have set up for a straight in approach but… wait, isn’t that the downwind runway? A glance to check on SkyDemon (from the forecast info downloaded before flight) and from the wind arrow then, yes, it will be. But no problem, I have lots of height, so adjust to join on high downwind for the into-wind runway.

“Lille Information. Golf Lima Charlie has Eu Mers airfield in sight two miles. Request frequency change to 123.500.”

“Roger Lima Charlie. Call me when on the ground. Can you copy a telephone number?”

Can I? Nope, my brain’s full. “Golf Lima Charlie negative. I’ll find it later.”

“Roger, frequency change approved. Bon chance.”

Thanks, Lille!

Bringing speed back…

How’s the height? Still good – looks like my aiming point is a third down the runway as all those instructors recommended. Bit high, do you think? Yes, a bit, so first stage of flap. Bring the speed back a bit more.

Call Final in execrable French, but hey, it’s almost the same word. Yep, made the runway so full flap, and flare and… would you believe it? A lovely gentle landing. Obviously, there will be nobody around to see it, given that it was a good one.

Taxi off the runway onto the grass parking, try a call (squelch off) just in case Lille could hear me (no) and shut down. Phew.

Well, I was right. Not a soul around to see that landing. Oh, wait – somebody’s coming out of the club house. In short order, after I explained the situation, I was in front of a very welcome, very strong and very black coffee. And I don’t drink coffee.

“A lovely gentle landing. Obviously, there will be nobody around to see it, given that it was a good one”

A bit of faffing around on my phone trying to read the relevant parts of the French AIP (again, facilitated by the omniscient SkyDemon) to find the phone number for the Lille supervisor was rendered moot by an incoming call from them (who had my number from my VFR flight plan). They already had a message that I was down safely, relayed from my friends in the aircraft ahead of me, whom I had been able to contact by WhatsApp in mid-Channel!

Vibration damage to cowling…

Bad vibrations…

After I had taken the cowlings off and seen nothing immediately obvious, other than some clear vibration damage to the upper cowling, Manu at the aero club generously allowed the aircraft to be put safely into the back of a secure hangar. I was provided with contact details for an engineering organisation at Le Touquet (a little over an hour away by road), and then the club arranged a local hotel for me and even more kindly drove me there with a tentative plan to meet back at the airfield the next morning.

At the hotel – you won’t tell my AME this, will you? – the first beer lasted about 20 seconds.

In the morning, after breakfast, I was all set for the 20 minute walk to the airfield but the hotel manager wouldn’t hear of it, and gave me a lift. Frustratingly, when I got there it was deserted and locked up and it remained so all day, which meant I was unable to have a more relaxed look at the aircraft. I couldn’t get the Le Touquet engineer on the phone, either.

I sat in the sunshine reading my Kindle and exchanging messages with friends – so many of whom offered help and their time in support. At 3 o’clock that afternoon Simon, whom I had last seen at dinner on the shores of the Bodensee two nights previously, dropped in to pick me up in his RV-6 and eventually dropped me at home.

So, a quiet weekend placating my nervous wife – as well as pondering with friends about what the problem could be. Not magnetos, surely? They wouldn’t fail simultaneously. Could it be something else to do with timing? But how would that fail in a moment? Could it be baffles collapsing on one side of the exhaust? But the exhaust was rebuilt only 20 hours ago.

I was back at work on Monday when I received an apologetic email from Le Touquet: “Too busy to drive to Le Tréport with a couple of staff off with Covid. Pardon, m’sieu.”

Fair enough. How about my LAA Inspector? “Sorry, not got a passport”.

Well how about…? “Sorry, I’m retired.”

Oh! Of course, there’s… “Really sorry, going on holiday tomorrow.”

I had amazing offers such as, “I can fly my engineer out if you like.” (Had that more than once. You know who you are – I thank you again!), but I was loath to do that until I had a better idea of what we were dealing with.

Back again…

Then Simon again (bless him) offered to fly me back on a day trip the following Sunday with a tool kit and we’d have a proper look around before inevitably (we assumed) going back with an engineer to fix whatever it was, and so that’s what we did.

Arriving at Le Tréport, via Calais for Customs, we were soon in the hangar with the cowlings off and immediately I spotted the obvious thing my somewhat bug-eyed-self had evidently failed to see the previous week.

The rocker covers look different somehow...

Oh, that’s not good…

Ah, well – nothing to be done but brace ourselves and remove the damaged rocker cover to reveal…

Oh, look what’s missing! The inlet arm on the left should have an adjustment screw and locknut – like the outlet on the right does.

The inlet adjustment screw and its lock nut had come loose, and had evidently migrated over to the outlet rocker where one item at least must have been mashed against the cover and punched the hole.

Amazingly, offering up the adjustment screw and locknut to their location revealed that neither had been damaged and they went back in place nicely.

Something’s definitely awry

Cheap – but it works!

We removed both plugs from that cylinder, made sure there was no pooled oil, cleaned what residual oil there was off the lower plug, and had a good look inside using the cheap, but effective, Lidl borescope I had taken with me.

A couple of phone calls to my Inspector in the UK, accompanied by images via WhatsApp, led to a list of further things to check, and then pulling through by hand showed that everything apparently now worked as it should.

The holed rocker cover was placed against an anvil (aka the hangar door rail) and bashed (stop me if I am getting too technical) with a handy peening hammer, which amazingly sealed it such that a test with avgas resulted in zero leakage. It’s not pressurised particularly so it was agreed that it should work as a temporary repair.

OK, let’s take the other covers off and then everything – but EVERYTHING – checked for torque (yes, Simon had brought a torque wrench), security, gap adjustment (yes, I had taken feeler gauges) etc, and with my Inspector’s remote blessing I got in for a ground run.

Sweet as a nut! All OK, so deep breath and…

Test flight, at climb power above airfield, careful orbits for some time within glide distance of the field then a further deep breath and…

About to leave Le Tréport, with gratitude
At Calais, prepping for Channel crossing homeward

Off we go

Head to Calais (40 mins or so, with 4x diversion options en route). At Calais, cowlings off, triple-check everything again, have a restorative snack then EXTRA deep breath and… go for the Channel crossing home.

Friendly coast ahead…
SkyDemon's glide range circle showing I could make it – just! – if the engine quit mid-Channel

Mile high and therefore always – albeit, in mid-Channel, only just – within glide distance of land. I cannot tell you the peace of mind provided by SkyDemon’s blue circle showing terrain and wind adjusted glide range when over water.

Once home, cowlings off and another thorough check of everything. All good.

Time for reflection: Well, how fortunate was that?

Not only that the failure occurred five minutes land-side of the crossing (20 minutes later would have been even less amusing), but that the resulting damage was comparatively minor.

What next? Well, a new rocker cover for a start! (A replacement rocker cover was £20 + gasket). And sincere thanks to many and reimbursement to some.

Conclusions include:

  • The training works… who knew? Fly the aircraft, manage the problem, use all resources available to you and make a positive decision (being ready to change it if circumstances change)
  • The international aviation community is an extraordinarily generous and supportive lot. That’s you, that is…
  • SkyDemon: I am an even bigger fan than previously. And my habit when outside the UK of changing the display to show both airfield name and ICAO locator helped a lot, especially since I told Lille that I was going to “Eu Mers” whereas it’s actually known as Le Tréport – following up on the PAN call with the ICAO code ensured no ambiguity
  • If you only think it’s tight, it might not be. Check it again! The engine had a new top-end only 25 hours previously.
Back home, tucked up safe and secure
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