I could never be so lucky again

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A new Swift pilot overcomes a catastrophic in-flight oil leak

Author’s note: If your aircraft is equipped with a spin on oil filter adapter made by F&M Enterprises, aka Tempest Aero Group, aka Stratus Tool Technologies, pay close attention to this story, and before your next flight, you would be very wise to comply with the Mandatory Service Bulletin which directs a comprehensive and detailed inspection of your spin on oil filter adapter ASAP.

All one could see, in every direction, was brilliant blue sky. The effect made it seem as if the sky reached into the heavens, and this day I was going to fly into the cobalt blue above Texas. Light winds. Mild December temperatures. It was the pilot-perfect day you wished you could wake up to every time you had the notion to fly.

Flying an airplane like this brings both joy and responsibility.

A year had passed since I bought my 1946 GC-1B, Continental C-145 powered, mostly original, polished dream come true. I worked diligently to log about 75 hours and a solid understanding of what it takes to maintain and safely fly history, convicted by the responsibility that one day I will, and hopefully in the same or better condition, pass it along to the next caretaker.

My passenger was just as special as the day. My son Zach is a 21-year old college engineering senior with a solo endorsement in his logbook. He was just as eager to aviate, and the grandeur of the day saw him looking skyward through the frame of the open hangar doors with great expectation.

Little did we know the blue skies would end with black oil streaked down the belly of the Swift, dripping in sheets onto a private runway we never imagined would be the prettiest patch of black asphalt we could hope for in a sea of wild Texas Hill Country.

It all started off simple and innocent. Our route was planned at just over an hour, flying at 1,000 ft. AGL along a course which flew airstrip to airstrip, deep into what is known as the Swiss Alps of Texas, all within easy reach of our Fredericksburg (T82) home airport. Like many parts of the Lone Star State, this area is beautiful, rugged, and somewhat remote.

The event began with three small drops of oil on my son’s left hand, only noticed because he was checking the movement of an elapsed second hand on a vintage Omega Speedmaster—the moon watch made famous by Apollo astronauts—he was lucky enough to pick up at a garage sale price. I wish I could avoid the easy pun which naturally arises here, but truly it was a timely piece of information, this just 18 minutes after takeoff.

A warning sign?

A quick scan of oil pressure, temperature, and all things tied to the health of my humming Continental O-300D revealed nothing out of the ordinary. I looked hard at the cowling, windscreen, and wings. All scanned clean. Somehow my mind jumped back in time to a toddler Zach, one who could find mud in a desert, and so I asked, “What did you touch before you got into the airplane?” He answered with a shoulder shrug and at this point I pondered the idea that a well known, small and persistent nuisance of a generator leak had somehow become worse.

So it begins. The first tracks of the gremlin were stumbled upon and usher in the “startle factor,” an age old mental box every aviator flies into when the improbable becomes possible, which now began to steal precious time as measured by the sweeping second hand on an old Omega watch. Outside, the rugged portion of the hill country grew closer in the windscreen.

As I was coming to reconciliation with it all, Zach put his iPhone flashlight to use in the only shadow to be found in the brilliant blue aloft. “Dad! Oil is pooling at my feet.” Instinctively I began a 180-degree turn to the last airport we flew over—a life boat in the distance known as Silver Wings Airpark (TS36). I traded airspeed for altitude and resisted the urge to command more from my faithful Continental by pushing up the power, knowing now the race against time had begun and the life blood of the motor was bleeding onto Texas and my son’s shoes at a rate I could only pray was slow enough to give us hope for a soft landing. Curious, I snuck a glance at my size 11 1/2 cowboy boots and was relieved to find them dry.

This was to be the first of many epiphanies that day. Unwittingly my son was the canary in the coal mine. If he hadn’t been there to catch the oil leak which found its way through the cabin air duct centered on the co-pilot’s side, who knows if I would have caught it in time. Truly a lucky discovery.

In the midst of the impending, everything appeared completely ordinary, almost on the verge of boring, according to the oil pressure gauge. Clearly it was oblivious the Aeroshell 100W, sometimes known as black gold or Texas tea, was being served in the cockpit with no useful container on hand. I used the moment to refine my course for Silver Wings and mentally prepare for a dead stick landing. In my best, “it’s-really-no-concern-voice,” I told Zach to keep a close eye on the oil pressure.

With the airspeed now indicating 95 MPH, my trade for altitude was about played out. 90 MPH is my minimum engine-out airspeed and I told Zach to keep me honest.

The view at 2,000 ft. AGL was infinitely better than it was at 1,000 ft. AGL. The hills, knitted together by craggy dry creeks along which live oak and mature cedar trees grew densely, soon yielded a glimpse of the only asphalt in the universe inside of the arc which extended from my left wingtip to the, thankfully still spinning, Sensenich propellor.

In the distance, tantalizingly visible, was home. Fredericksburg. Twenty miles. 10 minutes. Just.

Once again, I was convinced this was a generator leak.

Pilots, despite all personal assurances to the contrary, are not sky gods but merely human beings hoisted temporarily into the air, and unfortunately, our greedy human nature is not diminished with altitude. “I wonder if I can make it all the way back home,” was the fleeting question which was definitively—and very thankfully so—answered with a look at the oil pressure gauge. Zach saw it too. “Dad. We are losing oil pressure.”

The gravity of the situation was now driving the needle to the left. Anyone who mastered the concept of a number line in grade school knows that far left is a negative proposition and objects weighing 1600 pounds don’t have much hang time even in the bluest of sky. The engine was dying. It was a race to the lifeboat.

On silver wings gliding towards Silver Wings Airpark.

Silver Wings was our last best hope.

I started my approach by pulling the power back in hopes of preserving whatever was left of the engine, this to power me out of any mistakes I knew I was capable of making during my self induced—and more likely with each passing minute—forced, dead stick approach. Thankfully I started off with good energy. In fact, I likely had too much energy. I was a touch inside of a mile and a half from Runway 35 on a high and tight left base. 2000 ft. AGL is manageable, so long as you don’t have the monster tailwind I had that day. Gremlins are rarely considerate of such things.

A great many complex things came together with the next few rudimentary decisions, the next few white knuckle control inputs, the next track I carved into the sky that I was no longer welcome to be in.

Minutes before, altitude was something I craved. Now I could not get rid of it fast enough. And there was that tailwind.

Initially I considered flying a traditional pattern and landing into the wind. Instantly I dismissed that as foolish. I then considered a straight shot at the approach end and a forward slip to dump the altitude. I wasn’t convinced it would be enough. I instead made a slight bid for a modified downwind, careful to keep the runway inside the wingtip. When that “I-really-cannot-stand-what-I-am-doing-right-now” feeling became unbearable, I turned left base and concentrated on the mid point of the runway as my touchdown point, knowing I would shorten up as able to keep us from going off the end of the runway. And what about the effect of that monster tailwind?

Check speed. Gear down.

The Swift responded with, well… a swift descent rate. Now the runway was starting to look less like trying to jump into a tiny lifeboat from the deck of a cruise ship and more like a runway you intend to land on. It was at this time my son said, “Dad. We don’t have much oil pressure left.”

Not a good sign in an airplane.

Speed was good. Glide path was good. Descent rate was good. Even the tailwind at altitude began to die off and the windsock on the field, pointing completely all wrong, seemed manageable. The engine sounded fine. It was faithfully windmilling at idle, just as I had asked, and if I didn’t know any better, the loss of oil which brought us to this place and time almost seemed like an afterthought. But with my son’s warning came the thought that hit like a sledgehammer: there is no possibility of a go around. Best to accept this engine has given its last full measure of devotion and ask for no more.

My next thought became my only thought: “I have to stick this downwind landing.” Far better to go off the end of the runway at 30 MPH rather than land off airport at 90 MPH. In full disclosure, this new Swift pilot has never landed downwind in a Swift. No pressure here today.

This is where I made my first mistake. I extended the flaps too early. Suddenly everything that looked right, didn’t. I physically restrained my right hand from adding power.

I love second chances. We all need them. Rather than trying to find a way to live with what I just did, I undid it. Up came the flaps and right was the world. Almost there.

I continued a stabilized approach while the oil pressure settled to about a fat needle’s width above the round dot at the bottom of the original, blue faced Swift gauge. It wasn’t zero but it wasn’t at the minimum 10 PSI either. We were a quarter mile out.

On short final to a runway I have never landed on, I could only now see the pronounced downhill slope this strip was built with when the early aviation pioneers unhitched their horses from the wagon and dared to cut into the Texas limestone. Realizing you can easily move dirt but not the entire planet of rock underneath, they accepted what I now must—a downhill runway. And downwind. Suddenly gravity seemed much stronger in this part of the world. Was I going to get it stopped in time?

Check speed. Flaps down.

I don’t think it helped much at this point, but like the little boy who leaves the light on in the hall to deter the night monsters, I felt a lot better.

One last look approaching the threshold to verify the landing gear was indeed down—because it would be embarrassing to come this far only to forget—and then it was all stick and rudder to touchdown. With an eight knot left quartering tailwind on a tall, skinny latte-sized private airstrip no one invited me to, it was in fact a wondrous amount of stick and rudder. I touched down in the first third of the runway and was most pleased, but according to my hawk-eyed son’s blistering critique afterwards, “that was great but you were a little left of centerline, Dad.” Kids.

Once I lowered the tail and was tracking centerline, I shut down the engine using the mixture control knob in hopes that I would not do any damage. Was there any oil left? That thought can wait.

Stopping did not require any heavy braking, but perhaps that was because my heavy breathing acted like a thrust reverser. NASA is still reviewing the telemetry data to update the Globe/TEMCO landing roll charts.

I turned off at the end, followed by another turn onto the parallel taxiway with my heart pounding, my head a little cloudy, wondering how Bob Hoover did all that and more in a big Shrike Commander with both engines feathered and yet still had the energy to taxi to show center. I didn’t make it nearly as far.

The Omega Speedmaster on my son’s wrist recorded an elapsed time from oil spots to landing of just 9 minutes. Total flight time was 27 minutes.

It was a humbling and brief flight, one which started out with the boldest expectations.

A sickening sight for an airplane owner.

I’d like to go on record at this point and say what I did that day was a natural product of over three decades of flying. More so, I’d like to go on record and say what I did was trained into me by many exceptional instructors to the point it became instinct. Maybe it was. Or maybe it was just sheer dumb luck. In the weeks since the event, with intense reflection aided by the magic of ForeFlight, which allows one to replay the flight to the point of near insanity while safely on one’s living room couch, I have re-lived the last four minutes of my approach and landing seemingly into eternity.

Looking back, I would not have changed much, but there are things—some minor and others more consequential—I would have done differently to effect the exact same outcome. I made some mistakes, but in the end none were so great they could not be overcome or simply accepted until landing was assured. As my Swift checkout instructor told me after hearing my event, “You got it down safely. The airplane is reusable. Good job.”

I was lucky in many respects. I will offer some lessons learned after I reveal what the cause of this event was found to be. And pay very close attention, all you who have a spin on oil filter adapter.

So what gremlin wrestled me to the ground? Post-flight inspection revealed a completely torn, catastrophically failed, fiber gasket on the Stratus Tool Technologies (brand name Tempest Aero Group, formerly F&M Enterprises) Spin On Oil Filter Adapter (Model CO-300). Incredibly, there is an NTSB report released on December 3rd—just 14 days before my flight—about this very issue. It identifies many engines in a vast array of aircraft, not just the Continental-powered Swifts. My failure matched the report to the letter. Thankfully I did not add to the numerous fatal accidents and incidents this poorly designed product (my opinion based on my experience) has caused. After all, there is a reason why the NTSB recently urged the FAA to issue an Airworthiness Directive. Incredibly, the FAA has declined to.

Would you believe me if I told you that I had no oil leaks coming from the adapter before the event? In my best astronaut Gus Grissom, “The hatch just blew.”

An important word of warning to all pilots who fly with this device: I urge you to comply with the 2019 Mandatory Service Bulletin and carefully check your Stratus Tool Technologies / Tempest Aero Group / F&M Enterprises spin on oil filter adapter before your next flight, even if you have flown trouble-free for years. The Service Bulletin, one you’ve likely never heard of, directs a mandatory inspection prior to flight. It is detailed. It is comprehensive. Most of all, it is not a “one and done” event. The part requires constant maintenance and every so often, a fresh fiber gasket, which the manufacturer now recommends upgrading to a copper crush washer, as they have suspended selling the problem prone fiber gasket.

The fiber gasket failed exactly like the NTSB said it would.

Before I was lucky on this day, I was quite unlucky.

I make it a point to keep up with aviation news, and most especially, safety issues. In a past life I was an Air Force pilot and accident investigator. The experience forged a part of the aviator I am and I continue to think about managing risk every time I fly. A well known and highly regarded pilot advocate organization, who I will not name here, is a great resource for overcoming challenges we face in general aviation. They did indeed publish a story which I read just before my fateful flight. Unfortunately, they made the same oversight the NTSB did—they referred to the spin on oil filter adapter by the parent company no one knows—Stratus Tool Technologies. If you are new to an old Swift as I am, you probably do not realize that your Tempest Oil Filter may be attached to an F&M Enterprises adapter, also referenced in the NTSB’s report. I know my part by the Tempest brand and dismissed the warning.

Imagine my shock after I connected the dots and discovered my issue was not only known, it was preventable.

Both of my grandfathers were pilots in World War II. One grandfather was a B-24 pilot who rarely said much about his aviation experience after the war, but with a grandson who started life flying old tailwheel airplanes off a grass strip as a teenager, he offered an insight which flies with me long after his passing. “Listen closely to the old heads. Shepherd those who come in behind you. Watch over your buddies. Never stop learning.”

In that spirit, I humbly offer these lessons learned, or in the words of every great instructor who had a hand in my development as an aviator, “Why don’t you tell me how you thought that ride went?”

Here, in no particular order, are key lessons I learned and others I re-learned:

Planning a route, even a sightseeing route, using runways as waypoints is a solid practice. You never know when you might need one. Although it likely will make for a less direct route by adding five or seven minutes to a flight plan, it may, in the case of an emergency, add years to your life.

Make your passenger a co-pilot and give him or her clearly defined duties. In any situation aloft, find a way to expand your team. This best practice begins before takeoff, not after the emergency has started.

Never assume the oil leak you know about in the chocks is the same oil leak causing you trouble at altitude. Admittedly, I was slow to embrace that the oil I was seeing could be the result of a more serious problem which had developed after takeoff, and this nearly put me out of reach of an emergency airport.

Leave yourself options and give yourself permission to change the plan. I really wanted to “just get home and deal with this generator leak there.” As Silver Wings Airpark was just about to pass under the nose and Fredericksburg Municipal was coming into view, “only 10 minutes away,” I thought about all the dead pilots I have read about who overflew a perfectly good airport for less than perfectly good reasons. That day, Fredericksburg, Texas, was as far from us as Frankfurt, Germany. I was lucky the oil pressure gauge demanded immediate action at just the right time.

Practice makes better—but only if you commit to it regularly.

Practice makes better. When was the last time you practiced engine out landings? For me it had been about 10 months since I flew with my instructor during my initial Swift check out. The day I needed perfect execution of an engine out pattern I blundered somewhat by putting down the flaps too early. Why? I was rusty. Reflecting on it afterwards I realized I had not practiced engine out landings recently, and more so, I have never practiced engine out landings downwind.

What’s luck have to do with it? Jimmy Doolittle was the master of the calculated risk. I find it fascinating that his autobiography, the title of which I am borrowing for this story, acknowledges that luck is a force stronger than gravity and as unpredictable as the weather. Many wise people, such as my old baseball coach, consider luck to be the intersection of preparation and opportunity. As pilots, does anything we do rely solely on luck? Certainly not. But we should all recognize that when fate is the hunter, we must be prepared to identify and mitigate risk long before we step into the cockpit. We must consciously calculate for ourselves how much risk we can comfortably accept in light of our experience, skill set, weather conditions, ever changing current proficiency level, and training. Is flying over the gnarled Texas Hill Country a foolish proposition or is making a game of seeking out ranch airstrips cut into the valleys and perched on mesas within this ruggedly beautiful region a far better calculated risk? The only way to make flying 100% safe is to not fly. Aviation pioneers like Jimmy Doolittle survived to fly another day because they identified and mitigated risk. Never confuse that with luck.

Flying can take you to an early grave, or to heights which make life worth living. Ernest Gann, the famous aviation author, gave us many incredible stories wrapped in the definitive book on aviation, Fate is the Hunter. While it is true that despite a pilot’s best efforts to identify and mitigate risk, sometimes catastrophe is an unavoidable fate, does every pilot truly understand this? To me, this naturally asks one to consider relying upon a higher power. I certainly do. I once saw a church sign which read, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.” So true. As a man of great faith, I must not only be grateful for the many favorable things going my way that flight, I must also give credit to the spiritual compass which guides me every day both in and out of the cockpit.

Got airmanship? When I started Air Force pilot training in 1990, an old pilot who I recall was a colonel with gray hair and the highly coveted, much sought after, star and wreath on his silver wings, addressed my class. He told us 2nd lieutenants we were being issued two bags in addition to all the flight gear and fat books and technical manuals we just signed for. One was a “Luck Bag.” It was completely full. The other was a “Clue Bag.” It was completely empty. Our challenge was to fill the Clue Bag before our Luck Bag ran out. He was introducing the concept, the craft, the pursuit of the art of airmanship. The wings he wore were a symbol of his pilot qualification. The star and wreath later added symbolized the levels of airmanship we should all strive to attain.

In putting these thoughts down for your consideration, I fully realize I am still acquiring airmanship. Sometimes it is fun and easy. Other times it involves falling, thankfully safely in my event, out of the clear blue sky I boldly trespassed.

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