The Prop Stops Here

August 1, 2006

Worldwide tips on emergency landings

"Surprise yourself by closing the throttle without premeditation or assessing the wind direction and strength, and break it off when you are in an ideal position because the hard part is already done."—Edward Jones, Cabair College of Air Training

Actually the prop usually windmills if engine power is lost but "The prop windmills here" just didn't work as a title. In preparing this article, I heard that there are flight schools in the world where props are intentionally stopped — to be clear, at these schools the engines in single-engine airplanes are shut down during routine training. The process of researching that rumor brought tips on engine-out landings from New Zealand and England; we cover the world for you. You'll find some advice here from American sources, too, and also hear from a student pilot who had an engine failure on his checkride.

The rumor of an intentional prop stop came from a chief flight instructor from Holland who now works at a Maryland flight school. He suggested New Zealand might be the best place to start.

"An interesting question," wrote Ardmore Flying School chief Warren Sattler from South Auckland, New Zealand. "Engine-out emergency procedures are almost never practiced — the prop is always left windmilling — well, 99.999 percent of the time. However, every now and then, and particularly for advanced training such as a commercial pilot's license or instructor training, we may demonstrate the greatly improved glide performance of a stopped prop. Back in the 1990s when we had a fleet of Piper Tomahawks and before the control tower disappeared, dead-stick landings onto the airfield were practiced from time to time.

"We now have a fleet of Cessna 172Rs," Sattler wrote. "Provided you don't have an electrical problem these kick back into life quite easily. However, you need around 128 KIAS to get the prop windmilling without the starter. With new aircraft and the higher speeds required to get the prop windmilling, dead-stick practice to touchdown has virtually disappeared."

Then I contacted a school in England. Edward Jones of Cabair College of Air Training in Bournemouth was much more adamant (supply your own British accent): "If we found any of our instructors conducting intentional engine shutdowns during forced-landing training, they would no longer be employed with us, would speak with a much higher voice, and be reluctant to ride a horse for some considerable time." On a more serious note, Jones offers these tips: "Read safety articles in magazines and learn from other people's experience [you're doing that already, so congratulations]; take time to practice in the air, picking a suitable location and starting from an ideal position overhead to final approach, but go no lower than regulations allow; surprise yourself by closing the throttle without premeditation or assessing the wind direction and strength, and break it off when you are in an ideal position because the hard part is already done; don't annoy the neighbors when practicing and beware of carburetor ice during prolonged power-off descents."

Bruce Bohannon, pilot of the single-engine Exxon Flyin' Tiger (now just the Flyin' Tiger), has pushed his airplane to extremes while setting new time-to-climb and altitude records, and partially as a result he has had at least 20 engine-outs. Bohannon suggested this: "Practice simulated engine-out emergencies from 1,500 feet [abeam the touchdown point] until you are bored, and then practice them from 500 feet — again until you're bored." Obviously that's not something you can do at a busy airport, so find one that has little traffic. It is not an unusual suggestion, though. Flight instructors and examiners routinely have students or applicants approach with power at idle after spiraling down from 3,000 or 2,500 feet agl as part of training or a checkride. So I tried his advice.

The aircraft I was flying was a Cessna 172 that doesn't want to come down, unlike the Bonanza I also fly. You can guess the result. Landings from 500 feet were simple — turn for the runway. Spiraling down from 3,000 feet was not difficult because I was directly above the runway and had plenty of time to plan and adjust. But those from 1,500 feet presented a problem. I was tempted to fly a normal pattern, and in doing so, came in high and tended to land long. Obviously that practice is not yet boring to me. The important thing is that I learned something about the 172's behavior and will recall that experience in a real emergency. I'm now better prepared. I was high despite all the tricks at my disposal for getting down, including forward slips, flaps, and S-turns. Don't like forward slips? Admittedly they may create an uncomfortable attitude for you and especially for your passengers. Here's guessing that you have done few of them since private pilot training days, but they add another method for getting down. Check to see if your aircraft, like some of the newer Cessna 172s, has a placard on the instrument panel warning against slips with full flaps or lists such restrictions in the pilot's operating handbook.

How far is 'over there'?

Engine's out, where are you going to land? Over there? How far is that? Can you make it? Your next cross-country is a good time to practice estimating how far your aircraft can glide, without even reducing power to idle. Information in the pilot's operating handbook will provide an estimated gliding distance for your cruising altitude, but once you determine that number, can you accurately estimate that number of miles over the ground? Use your GPS to play a distance estimation game. On a recent cross-country I first estimated the gliding distance, which for my altitude above mountainous West Virginia terrain was 4.5 miles, then waited until I saw an airport and selected the Nearest button, which brought up the airport name and distance. That particular airport was 4.3 nm. I then knew how far 4.3 miles looked on the ground and made a mental note of where the airport intersected my wing. Want more airport options? Climb.

Student pilot loses engine on checkride

If you subscribe to AOPA ePilot you've already read of Wesley Wood, who made an excellent off-airport landing in Kinston, North Carolina, during his checkride. As you read through the incident, you'll pick up several tips on handling an emergency. The examiner let the 25-year-old Coast Guard information technical specialist make all the decisions, but responded with a yes or no, after their Cessna 150 began to lose power. The examiner, who also is a mechanic, discovered later that a valve got stuck. Then the stem broke off in two pieces. One of the pieces destroyed the cylinder, and the other destroyed the opposing cylinder. But the engine never lost oil pressure or indicated high oil temperatures.

"We were headed back to the airport after doing the ground reference maneuvers," Wood said in a description of the incident on AOPA Online. "I had climbed back to 1,500 feet and was about 10 miles from [Kinston Regional Jetport]. The aircraft started a moderate vibration and the rpm dropped to about 2,300. We checked carb heat, mixture, mags, and fuel with no change. The engine was running, just not at full power. When the rpm got down to 2,100, we went to the best-glide speed and were still inbound for the airfield. I called tower and told them what was going on and where we were, and they cleared the field. About two miles from the field our altitude had dropped to 600 feet, maintaining 60 knots. The last two miles were all woods, and I told the examiner I didn't think we were going to make it to the field, and even if we did, we were perpendicular to the only runway and I knew we wouldn't have altitude to line up." Wood suggested to the examiner that they turn 180 degrees and land in a cotton field behind them. In a telephone interview, Wood said the examiner replied, "I think you're right. Let's do it."

"About halfway through the turn the power dropped to 1,500 rpm so I lined up with the rows in the field and told the tower we were landing off field about three miles east. The examiner kept his hands on the controls but let me fly it. The rest was just a normal short/soft-field landing." There was no damage to the airplane or its passengers. Wood got an "incomplete" on his checkride, but went back 10 days later, completed the checkride, and got his certificate.

"I am really glad I got to go through this," Wood wrote. "If it ever happens again, I know my confidence level will be raised just knowing that I've had a successful outcome in the past." It was the examiner's first off-airport landing since becoming a flight instructor in 1975.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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Links to additional information about emergency landings may be found on AOPA Online.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.