Proficient Pilot

Sound of silence

August 1, 2003

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff has logged more than 26,000 flight hours.

FAA records are replete with accidents that result from engine failure. From these, we presumably learn how often pilots experience power loss. Or do we? Because such failures often do not result in accidents and, therefore, are not reported, it is possible that engine failures occur much more frequently than we might otherwise believe.

Steven McCorkle, a 2,000-hour private pilot who uses his 1960 Cessna 210 (N9608T) to commute monthly between his offices in Monterey and Santa Ana, California, recently demonstrated a case in point. Last June, McCorkle was operating in smooth air and brilliant sunshine above a solid undercast while following the Hollywood Park Route through the Los Angeles Class B airspace on a return flight to Monterey. The stratus layer extended in all directions as far as the eye could see. Only distant mountains ringing the Los Angeles Basin were sufficiently tall to poke through the June gloom of Southern California's coastal region.

He was in cruise flight at 8,500 feet msl and admiring the view when his airplane suddenly began to shake violently. Because of hydraulic problems he had been having recently, McCorkle initially thought that one or more landing gear legs had fallen from their wells. After looking at his engine analyzer, though, he was stunned to discover that a pair of cylinders was no longer producing power. Oil began to coat the windshield. The Teledyne Continental IO-470 was apparently in its death throes.

McCorkle transmitted a Mayday that grabbed the attention of the controller with whom he had been in contact. He advised her that he needed guidance through the thick undercast to where he would have the best chance of surviving a forced landing in IFR conditions. She responded by suggesting a vector to nearby Santa Monica Municipal Airport. McCorkle activated the "nearest airport" function of his GPS receiver and confirmed his proximity to Santa Monica. He also knew that the airport was surrounded by a dense concentration of population and manmade obstacles that were not conducive to an emergency landing in the event that he could not reach Santa Monica's single runway. He told the controller that he preferred a vector to the beach, which, he reckoned, offered the safer haven.

In the meantime, McCorkle's engine failed completely because of what later was determined to be a thrown piston rod. The Cessna's cockpit filled with smoke, and McCorkle began to believe that his lifelong fear of burning to death might soon become a reality. He was concerned that if he opened his side window to evacuate the smoke, the increased ventilation might cause a fire to erupt in the cabin. It soon became difficult for him to breathe, however, and he had no choice. Thankfully, there was no fire.

At 5,000 feet msl, McCorkle was still in the clear. Heading west toward the Pacific Ocean, the Cessna descended at 90 mph and 500 fpm (best glide) toward the gloomy undercast. The remainder of McCorkle's flight was destined to last only 10 more minutes.

As he entered the stratus at 3,200 feet msl, McCorkle noticed that his attitude and heading indicators were spooling down and providing erroneous information. With the prop at a standstill, the vacuum pump was no longer pumping. He reverted to "needle, ball, and airspeed" and advised the controller to keep vectoring turns to a minimum while he was in the fog so that his conventional compass would be less susceptible to error. With the pitot heat drawing so much power, he wondered how much longer the battery would last. It became darker in the cockpit as the Cessna descended deeper into the clag. Droplets of condensation streamed across the windshield, and McCorkle wondered when he would break out of the overcast and what he would see. He could only wait and review his options, options that dwindled with every turn of the altimeter.

The 210 broke out of the overcast at 1,000 feet msl, and McCorkle remembers seeing a sandy beach immediately ahead. He also saw Santa Monica's 5,000-foot-long runway sliding behind on his left and immediately decided to attempt landing there. He was too high for Runway 3 and S-turning to that runway would require steep turns and heroic maneuvering at low altitude. Now less than 800 feet agl, he instead banked left and onto an abbreviated downwind leg for Runway 21 while several hundred feet below pattern altitude.

Patrons of the restaurant overlooking Runway 21 observed the Cessna with the stilled propeller make what appeared to be a near-perfect, flaps-up landing within the touchdown zone. McCorkle later said that he had more experience in hang gliders and ultralights than in airplanes and was thankful for the opportunity to become accustomed to the sound of silence and having to glide to a landing, experience he believes that was invaluable in resolving this emergency.

Interestingly, this was not McCorkle's first engine failure. After spending 20 hours flying over water during a Caribbean trip, his engine inhaled a valve and failed while in instrument conditions over Augusta, Georgia. These engine failures never made the NTSB blotter because they did not result in accidents. No one was injured, and the aircraft was not damaged. Do such incidents outnumber those that do result in an accident? Or is it the other way around? There is no way to know.

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