In-Flight Emergencies

Engine Out

January 1, 1999

Some lessons from experience

Pilots should periodically review what to do when things go wrong so that the first few steps can be done from memory. To help you be a little more prepared, "Engine Out" kicks off a 12-part series on common emergencies. Future topics include forced landings, getting lost, running out of fuel, inadvertent thunderstorm penetration, ditching, in-flight fires, upset recovery, and radio failure. Those with the best advice about engine failures have experienced the real thing.

Flight instructor Don Wylie got real-world experience when a customer came to his company, Texas Air Aces, for proficiency training in a newly purchased Beech B36TC Bonanza. Customers taking the course can get a break on their insurance premiums. The aircraft had been purchased right on the airport, and the customer had never flown it. The engine had just been rebuilt, and unknown to Wylie and the customer, all the induction tubing was loose.

The training flight left from David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport (his headquarters), 28 miles northwest of Houston and climbed to 7,500 feet. "Whenever I fly, I go as high as possible," Wylie said (Lesson one, altitude is your friend). He went to a practice area over Lake Conroe, chosen by the school because there is an emergency airport nearby (Lesson two, avoid unfriendly terrain). Two of the elements needed for a successful engine-out landing were now in place.

The engine quit in level flight as Wylie discussed the first maneuver for the day. There was no period of sluggish performance or reduced power; it just quit. Wylie established best glide speed and tried the fuel boost pump in an effort to restore power. Visibility was limited by thick haze, but he was familiar with the emergency field and pointed the aircraft in its general direction.

He let the prop windmill, rather than yanking the propeller control to low rpm to increase glide range, because he might need the rpm for a possible air start. (Wylie says he realizes that point is debatable, and he is ready for your letters.) Everything that Wylie had learned in his military and civilian flying career was tried during the 13-mile glide — isolate the magnetos, switch tanks, call approach control. Bringing the mixture back to lean seemed to stir the engine to life, but only for a moment. By the time Houston Approach assigned a discrete squawk code and began to give him vectors, Wylie had already spotted the field.

"I arrived on base at 1,800 feet (800 would have been normal with a running engine). I called for gear and full flaps, and went into a hellacious forward slip," Wylie recalled. At 500 feet he had developed a high sink rate. "Pilots don't realize how much drag there is when the engine isn't even producing idle power," Wylie said. It is better to be too high and to go off the opposite end of the runway under control and at low speed than to undershoot, Wylie said (lesson three). He made it safely without running off the end.

Another case is even more dramatic, and most of us would not have survived it. The incident involved two Pitts S-2B pilots and a new engine that had one or two parts out of tolerance just enough to cause an engine failure.

When the failure occurred, the prop was frozen in place by the jammed engine parts, and there was no chance of a restart. The pilots lined up with a road, but there was a power line on one side of the road and a house on the other. It could mean only one thing; a wire had to cross the road to provide power to the house. The wire happened to be right in the flight path and snagged the Pitts, slewing it 90 degrees and rolling the aircraft inverted. The pilot was highly skilled — an airshow pilot, in fact — and rolled the airplane upright before making an otherwise normal landing in a pasture. The aircraft was damaged extensively by its impact with the wire, but the pilots were safe.

Both examples have one thing in common: The pilots knew how far their aircraft could glide because their skills were polished by daily experience. What about those of us who fly once a month or once every three months? And how do we estimate gliding distance if we are constantly flying different models of aircraft?

Ron Fowler, in the book Making Perfect Landings, suggests that pilots imagine themselves sitting on a cone with sides slanting at a 45-degree angle down to the ground. "By confining your landing area to this cone, you are assured of reaching it," Fowler writes. Once you accept the cone concept, designed to assure that you will at least land under control, which site within the cone should you pick? Remember that the cone is circular and that the best landing spot may be behind you. Lou Wipotnik of Chicago, chosen by the general aviation industry as the 1996 flight instructor of the year, suggests these factors for you to consider:

Size of the field. Many fields, especially around the Midwest, are outlined by section lines about a mile square. Telephone and power lines may surround such fields, however, and are often invisible when landing into the sun.

Color. Fields change colors during the growing season. Newly plowed fields are obviously bad choices, but brown with a touch of green or green fields with sod may be good choices. However, what is green at altitude could be high crops down close. Dark green, such as corn in summer, is obviously a bad choice. Yellow fields could mean high corn in the fall or tall wheat; either one is a bad choice. Harvested fields are better but are very rough.

Wind. Landing into the wind offers the pilot the best opportunity for survival, Wipotnik said.

Altitude. Fly high enough en route to offer yourself time in the event of an engine failure (see lesson one above). For most light aircraft, 7,000 to 8,000 feet msl is the optimum for fuel economy and, if not over high terrain, affords time to run through emergency procedures.

Routes. Select routes that offer the best of level terrain possible, Wipotnik advises. While it is not always possible, try to avoid vast woodlands, large bodies of water, mountains, marshes, or large cities. If you have to fly over such areas, especially large cities, know in advance where the best landing sites are located. Wipotnik teaches at Palwaukee Municipal Airport in Wheeling, Illinois, which is surrounded by the heavily developed Chicago suburbs. He has studied the few landing sites available just off the airport and videotaped them, and he presents the tape at safety meetings.

The chances are that if you have an emergency, you will do whatever your checklist says and, beyond that, whatever seems to work best for the circumstances. But you can stack the odds in your favor, as lessons from Wylie, Wipotnik, and the airshow pilot indicate.


E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.