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Reflections January 2017

As I Recall...

My First In-flight Emergency

By Jerry Ginther

All I could do was hope he lived through his motion sickness, because I couldn’t park and help him. He was on his own and continued to be very sick. I was no help to my cameraman either. He was now two seconds off of hysterical, but I had to stay focused on the problem.

“San Angelo tower, this is Cessna 1-2-9-9 uniform,” I spoke into the microphone unsure of what I would say next.

“Good afternoon, 1-2-9-9 uniform,” came the reply from the air traffic controller in the tower.

What had started out as a routine photography flight, was about to get more exciting. We had departed Waco, Texas, earlier in the day with three souls on board – my 12-year-old son, my cameraman and myself. I was piloting the single engine Cessna 172, a high wing, four place aircraft we used for our photography missions.

The first leg of the flight between Waco and Brownwood was uneventful. The only concern I had was the extremely high temperature, which was fast approaching the 100-degree mark. It was a hot summer day and it was going to get hotter. Checking my logbook, I see it was July 24, 1987.

We decided we would land at Brownwood for fuel and refreshment. The refreshment would include a can of soda for my son Warren who occupied the back seat during the flight. That soda would become part of the excitement not long after our departure from Brownwood.

The outside air temperature registered 105F-degrees. Our next photo shoot was in the small town of Ballinger. It consisted of several large, cotton warehouses. I descended to the proper altitude and began to circle the location along the Colorado River. After a few passes we achieved the proper distance above the terrain and width of the circle for good exposures.

With the photography completed, I headed the Cessna west and pushed the throttle in all the way and locked it, but the engine did not respond to the increase of the throttle, as it should have. I noticed that I could barely maintain straight and level flight.

At that point I wasn’t too concerned given the extreme outside air temperature. I knew that hot weather affected climbing performance. However, this was my first time flying in such heat, so, for a few minutes I thought that may be the problem. When I was able to gain a little more than 60 on the airspeed indicator, I began to easily pull back on the yoke to initiate a shallow climb. It was a slow process of climb, level off, gain airspeed, and climb a little more until I was at a safe enough altitude to begin conducting some tests.

Now suspicious of a more serious problem, I started my testing with the magnetos. I turned the key to “left mag only.” There was no change in the sound of the engine. There should have been a slight drop in RPM, but there wasn’t. Now, I was becoming more concerned. I didn’t want to check the right mag, but I knew I had to. Turning the key to “right mag only” the engine quit and the nose dropped. Yep, that was scary for a second. Quickly, I turned the key to “both” and the engine backfired really loud, but restarted. I had lost a little altitude, but was back straight and level.

The engine was running again, but unable to maintain the RPM that it had before I started the testing. Realizing that I had lost one set of spark plugs in each cylinder, I knew the others were beginning to foul. More experimenting required, I began to lean the fuel mixture. As I did the engine began to rev up a bit, but never reaching full power.

The soda which Warren had in Brownwood didn’t help one bit during this busy episode with the failing engine as it all came back up from a scared, nervous stomach and landed all over the back of my seat and back floorboard. All I could do was hope he lived through his motion sickness, because I couldn’t park and help him. He was on his own and continued to be very sick. I was no help to my cameraman either. He was now two seconds off of hysterical, but I had to stay focused on the problem.

By then, we were approaching San Angelo, Texas, but unable to see the airport at that point.

“Tower I have a magneto failure and don’t know if I can make it to the airport because of the fouled plugs,” I informed him. He gave me a transponder code and told me to “ident.”

Then he said, “Radar contact ten miles east of the field. Can you maintain your altitude?”

“Roger, so far.”

Agonizing minutes passed as the tower communicated with other in-bound traffic, keeping them out of my flight path.

“1-2-9-9 uniform, do you have the airport in sight?”


“1-2-9-9 uniform cleared to land one-four.”

“Tower, I’m heading 2-4-0 now and can see I’m in line with a runway on this heading. I’d prefer that. It’s straight in for me, no turns and I think I can make it.”

“Roger, 1-2-9-9 uniform, cleared to land two-four.”

The Cessna cleared the fence; I closed the throttle and executed the landing flare. The engine had died when I closed the throttle, but the plane settled nicely on the main wheels. The nose wheel dropped to the pavement and we rolled to a stop in the middle of the runway. The engine was dead, but we were alive and down safely.


Jerry Ginther grew up in Sullivan IL and now resides in Texas. He has a degree in Christian Ministry and is the author of "Acquiring the Benefits of Biblical Wisdom," available in e‑book format on You may contact Jerry at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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