Proficient Pilot

Engine failure in singles

October 1, 2001

Barry Schiff retired from TWA as a captain in 1998. He has been flying for 49 years.

Some years ago I took an informal survey dealing with pilots' attitudes about the possibility of power failure when flying single-engine airplanes. This led me to the generalized conclusion that the pilots most thoughtful about such things are those who have already experienced power loss. Those who have never had an engine failure — and thankfully, most never will — are typically least concerned. Every hour, every day, and every year of uneventful flight reinforces their increasing confidence in powerplant reliability. Perhaps this is why some operate their flights with less thought or concern about the possibility of power loss than do others.

We are told that a significant number of engine failures are caused by pilot error such as fuel exhaustion or system mismanagement. It is human nature, of course, to discount such emergencies because we know that we are above such things. (I am certain that victims of pilot-induced power failure believed similarly prior to the incident.)

Engines also fail for structural reasons that are beyond a pilot's control. I was reminded of this salient point last June when I attended the annual Cayman Caravan. Fellow writer Amy Laboda and her passengers had just taken off southbound from Key West, Florida, in her Cessna 210 when a catastrophic engine failure shattered all possibility of continued flight. The result was a survivable ditching some miles from the airport.

It only takes one engine failure in a single to permanently elevate one's consciousness about the possibility of power loss. In my case, it took two.

The first occurred in 1956 while checking out a newly certificated private pilot in a Stinson Voyager. Shortly after takeoff and while approaching the departure end of the runway, a connecting rod broke and sent its piston crashing through the cylinder head. Power loss was loud, sudden, and total.

It appeared that we had enough altitude to make a one-eighty and return to the runway, which is what I opted to do. Just as I was about to roll out of the turn at about 20 feet above the runway, my student thought that we were descending too rapidly and decided to lend a helping hand — a very heavy and pulling hand that led to a stall and a fall. Fortunately, we were low enough that there was not time for the nose to pitch downward, but we did crunch hard enough for the right landing-gear leg to collapse.

The second occurred in 1972 shortly after taking off from Alaska's Lake Hood in a Piper Super Cub on floats. We had just crossed the shoreline when it seemed as though a cosmic hand had reached into the cockpit and retarded the throttle smoothly, slowly, and completely. My choice was to descend into tall timber or return to the lake. I opted for the latter but failed to consider that a Cub on floats does not glide as well as one on wheels. We made it back to the water but not without first striking the right wing of a Cessna 185 floatplane parked dockside. (I am convinced that an avoidance maneuver would have resulted in a stall.) The subsequent investigation revealed that some form of organic contamination in the fuel tanks had worked its way through the fuel lines and clogged the filter.

It is little wonder that I have yet to take off in a single since then without giving at least some thought to the possibility of an engine failure. It is an experience one never forgets and has resulted in a short list of guidelines that I exercise to the maximum extent possible and practical.

  • Select before engine start the fuel tank to be used for takeoff so that fuel quality and flow integrity can be verified before needed.
  • Think about and be prepared to abort every takeoff.
  • Climb as expeditiously as possible after takeoff and do not reduce power until high enough to be within glide range of a suitable landing site. (With respect to required noise-abatement procedures, I reduce rpm slightly and leave the throttle wide open; manifold pressure reduces naturally and automatically during the climb.)
  • When en route, switch fuel tanks only when within gliding range of a safe landing site.
  • Cruise at altitudes that allow time to employ restart procedures, select a suitable landing site, and plan a safe approach and landing.
  • Navigate within range of emergency landing sites. Such planning seldom adds more than a few miles or minutes to any flight and occasionally means not proceeding via "GPS direct."
  • Never land with less than an hour's worth of fuel in the tanks.
  • Avoid night flight over hostile terrain unless within range of highways or other landing sites.
  • Avoid prolonged instrument flight over mountainous terrain at night.
  • Avoid long, low, flat approaches.
  • Avoid any situation that precludes the possibility of a safe forced landing.

I find that tempering my flights with these operating guidelines is seldom inconvenient. Moreover, it raises consciousness about a risk that we too often fail to consider.

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