Monterey Emergency
Flying|September 2017

An Ounce of Prevention ...

Stan Dunn

I discovered aviation years ago after winning a free hour in a United Airlines DC-10 simulator. It wasn’t long before I started taking flying lessons at Centennial Airport in Colorado, where I trained in the high-density altitude days of summer. If nothing else, the anemic aircraft performance taught me discipline as it related to airspeed: If you are unsatisfied with your rate of climb at Vy, increasing pitch won’t help.

After an intermittent few years of flight training, my family finally prodded me into an administrative position at a flight office in Los Angeles. I packed my bags and drove to the coast, planning to quickly earn my commercial certificate once settled. Instead, I filled a surprisingly affordable room a block from Hermosa Beach with surfboards and sand, and six months later I had yet to fly over Southern California.

Eventually, I was introduced to an airline captain who also owned a flight school. He gave me the number for a 19-year-old CFI, and we got to work finishing up my commercial license. Soon, all that was left was to build the prerequisite hours for the practical test. A flight up the coast sounded like a great way to waste a Saturday, and the clam chowder in Monterey is renowned. It was going to be a long flight in the slowpoke Cessna 152, but I was excited to see the sights and build some time.

I departed early from Daugherty Field in Long Beach. During the run-up, the left magneto threatened to drop below the rpm limit; I ran the test several times before I was satisfied that it was stabilized on the borderline of allowable. I thought, this is not normal, but it is legal. It is a concept that I now know should raise red flags.

I took off from LGB and made my way across the tangled LAX morass, breaking out of Class B airspace just past Malibu. It was a beautiful day, smooth as glass. I had the Pacific to my left and the Santa Monica Mountains to my right. The aircraft was trimmed and humming; I was maintaining altitude with gentle inputs from my thumb and forefinger. The Pacific coast was slowly guiding me toward Pebble Beach, a few miles from Monterey Airport. An ideal flight if ever there was one.

Then it happened. All at once, the aircraft began decelerating. The engine was still cranking, but there was a precipitous loss of power. My heart hit my throat as I glanced at the airspeed indicator: There is not much room between cruise and best glide speeds in the 152. I informed ATC that I was not going to be able to maintain my assigned 6,000-foot altitude and requested vectors to the nearest airport.

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