CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 CHAD FOSTER
Detachment 5, Company C, 2-245 Aviation Regiment
New York Army National Guard
Latham, New York
Flying a C-12 out of Bogota, Colombia, comes with many challenges a pilot might not normally see flying stateside. The Andes Mountain range is very dynamic with some peaks reaching more than 20,000 feet. Towering cumulonimbus clouds will spread through your route like a mine field and pop up like clockwork almost every day. Density altitude, high temperatures and takeoff weight must be looked at closely with every mission. And then there is the Colombian air traffic control (ATC), who speak Spanish 90% of the time and will put a foreign plane in holding so they can land an Avianca plane that is 20 miles behind you. As a brand-new pilot in command, the last thing I wanted to deal with in this environment was any sort of emergency, but that’s exactly what I encountered.
My co-pilot and I were on the final leg of a three-leg mission. We’d taken off from Barranquilla on the northern coast and were flying south to Bogota. Just about halfway along the 1.5-hour route at 26,000 feet, I looked out my right-side window and noticed streaks of fluid around the No. 2 engine. To be honest, my first thought was we had hit a large bird. However, it only took a split second to realize that the chances of hitting a bird at 26,000 feet were pretty low.
Realizing that it was oil leaking out of the cowlings, my eyes immediately tracked to the No. 2 engine instruments, expecting to see a drop in oil pressure or maybe a rise in turbine gas temperature. To my relief, everything was still in normal operating ranges, exactly where it would be if there was no leak at all. After a deep breath, I alerted my co-pilot of the situation. I said, “Hey, the No. 2 engine is leaking oil.” Looking back, I’m not so sure using such a nonchalant tone was the best idea because he seemed as if he were waiting for the punchline to a joke.
After reaffirming that the engine was in fact really leaking oil, it was time to start making decisions. My co-pilot and I both agreed that immediately reducing the No. 2 power control lever to 40% would allow us to maintain altitude while alleviating some pressure on the engine oil system. If oil pressure dropped below 60 PSI, we’d had to either shut down the engine or make a landing as soon as possible using minimum power required to sustain flight. This is point the where your environment changes your decision-making process. Had we been anywhere along the East Coast of the United States, I would have elected to make a precautionary landing at any of the numerous airfields with suitable services to accommodate our situation. However, when flying over the Andes in Colombia, there are only a handful of decent runways — and most of those are not necessarily in places you’d want to be stuck with aircraft issues.
Our priority was to make it to our bed-down site at El Dorado International in Bogota. The next order of business was to advise ATC of our situation and request direct priority routing to the field. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous as I clicked the mic to make the call. I had never made a call like this. Now here I was doing it for the first time in a foreign country with ATC that was challenging to work with on a normal day.
Much to my surprise, ATC handled our situation very well. They immediately gave us present position direct to the field and asked if we wanted to declare an emergency. Since all systems were within normal ranges, I felt there was no need to declare an emergency, but I did tell ATC that if anything changed, I would let them know. I also asked if they would notify our facility at El Dorado so our mechanics could be prepared to receive the plane in its condition. “No problemo!” was the response to that request and, sure enough, they got ahold of our guys.
Now it was just my co-pilot and I with 40 minutes to go, praying the oil pressure wouldn’t drop. With still some time before the approach sequence into Bogota, we decided it would be a good idea to go over all of the possible emergency procedures that could develop from the oil leak. I pulled out the checklist and read through Engine Shutdown in Flight, Engine Cleanup, Engine Fire in Flight, Wing Fire and all of the single-engine procedures.
After completing that, we were relieved to be flying over the last ridgeline of the Andes before descending into Bogota. ATC checked with us one more time to make sure everything was still OK before handing us off to Bogota approach, which was fully aware of the situation. They advised us that a fire truck would be on standby just in case it was needed. Conditions were visual flight rules at the field and, thankfully, the landing was a nonevent.
So, what caused the oil leak? It was a small tear in a 1-inch O-ring in one of the scavenger lines under the engine. We flew for more than 40 minutes from when I noticed the leak and only lost 2 quarts of oil, and pressure stayed in the normal range the entire time. You have to love those Pratt and Whitney engines.
The big take away for me was something I have heard often throughout my aviation career — “Just fly the aircraft.” Not all emergencies require immediate action. Fly the aircraft first and make sure everything (heading, altitude, airspeed and engine instruments) is where it should be. Then you will have time to assess your situation and consider other factors like what kind of environment you’re flying in. How you handle an emergency situation in one part of the world might be very different from what you would do in another.