Yesterday was a little exciting. I had 77WE scheduled for some commercial maneuver practice. As I started driving to KAUS I realized I had no headset. They were all at Spicewood. So I diverted to Spicewood and decided to fly Cav to KAUS instead of driving.
That flight went well, nice tailwind. The east runway was closed and I was assigned right base for 17R. Tower slotted me in between a departing airline and a 182 on a 6 mile final, keep speed up, can you accept a short approach. Affirm. I brought it in tight, greased the landing and got a nice compliment from tower.
But a 17R landing requires 3 miles of taxiing (Golf Alpha Kilo) to get to Atlantic. I have a bad habit of riding the brakes on taxi. As I neared the turn onto Kilo I realized I had no brakes. They had suffered bad heat fade. I'd only seen this once before at Tucumcari (with a long taxi). I discovered that I could pump the brakes and eventually get some stopping action. Trying to follow the lineman's flag directions at the Atlantic ramp was a bit nerve racking, since a guy is standing in front of my spinning prop and I can't stop!
At Atlantic I get the keys for 77WE and start the preflight. I sump the right tank and then the firewall sump, and then the left. Oh no, the right sump is dripping. A lot. Right on the brakes. I fool around with it for a while, no joy. Still dripping enough to leave a puddle. Not good. I find George and he says to just work the drain a few times. Already did that George. Finally the mechanic arrives and we remove the drain plug (catching fuel in a plastic container). He finds a hair in it and reinstalls it.
Success! After arriving late and fooling with the drain plug, I'm now two hours late. Nobody has the plane so I finish preflight and start up.
Here's the fun part. I taxi out (Bravo Hotel Charlie) for a full length 35L takeoff. Tower assigns heading 030. I take off, gear up, 95mph, climbing nice. Tower hands me off to departure. At 2800 for 3000 departure assigns a heading of 180. I start leveling off and turning. Glass smooth. As I pull the power and start trimming, BANG, engine sound changes and starts shaking. Engine is still running, but this ain't right. I pull the power a little more. Let Departure know I need an immediate return, and I might need to declare an emergency. They assign a right base for 35L and inquire as the nature of the problem. I let them know the engine does not sound right. I start to diagnose the problem. My first thought was blown plug, but the engine was running a bit too good. Based on the sound, I guessed exhaust gasket. Departure hands me back to tower. As I manage the pattern descent, I get the gear down and let tower know I have power and this is not an emergency. I bring it down nicely on the numbers just in front of a waiting airliner and pull off at taxiway Tango. The four firetrucks pull on to the taxiway! A big ole scene as all the Southwest jets have to wait for taxiway Charlie to clear of emergency vehicles. Ground clears me to taxi, but first I have to talk with a firefighter through the left window (with the engine running). The trucks follow me. We make a nice little parade around the airport, past the passenger terminal, into Atlantic. I shut down and get out, the lead fire guy has me fill out a form.
George is there getting ready to go. I explain what happens and he says "Huh. That's strange." I think George thinks I'm imagining things. After George leaves in one of the other planes, the mechanic pulls the cowling. We have a look. Number 4 exhaust is hanging loose, broken completely off near the flange. Sort of like an exhaust gasket failure.
So ends my first solo flight in a Piper airplane!
In retrospect, with an engine problem like this, I should have kept the gear up much longer and aimed for the first quarter of the 12000 foot runway. I brought it in low, under power, and if the engine really had quit I would have been in the trees at the south end of the runway. There was no need to aim for the numbers, and that was a bad habit I need to break.
Also in retrospect I didn't need to say the E word quite so soon. On the other hand there was clearly a problem, and in the first 15 seconds I didn't know what the outcome would be.
Finally, on the way home, Cav's brakes were fine. Taxi Bravo, Hotel, Charlie, Golf intersection takeoff, smooth ride back to Spicewood, uneventful landing.
Oh, and I was showing off Cav to the mechanic. He asked me if I could help him do some riveting!