Proficient Pilot: Engine Out

March 1, 2009

Barry Schiff has authored 12 aviation books including two novels.

The student, of course, is expected to remain calm, establish a normal glide, locate and begin an approach to a suitable landing site, and make an effort to restart the engine (if time, altitude, and workload permit).

The student never knows when his instructor will surprise him in this way, but he is expected to be prepared for it at all times. He presumably has been trained to constantly scan the landscape for suitable landing sites in the event of engine failure (or other emergency necessitating a forced landing). He is taught to plan his flights so as to maximize the availability of potential landing sites.

It could be argued that a new pilot is more aware of the potential for engine failure and how to deal with it than more experienced pilots. This is because flight reviews do not typically include simulated engine failures, and pilots do not seem to be as prepared to cope with them. I have administered reviews to pilots who acknowledge that it has been many years since the last time an instructor reached over to close the throttle. This is why I simulate at least one engine failure during every flight review I give. I also tend to spend more time on this procedure than on any other.

Toward the end of the last flight review that I gave, for example, the pilot on my left established the aircraft “in the slot” on a three-mile-long, straight-in approach that passed over a densely populated urban setting. That is when the devil in me took over. I retarded the throttle and announced nonchalantly, “Engine failure.”

The pilot was stunned. There was no suitable place to land, only narrow, traffic-filled streets. Nor could we glide to the runway because this would require a 20-to-1 glide ratio, and no light airplane can do that (especially with wing flaps extended). The airplane sank below the glide slope and the VASI lights quickly turned red.

I did not expect the pilot to select a landing site. Rather, I wanted him to appreciate how especially dangerous a low-altitude engine failure can be.

When pilots learned to fly in the 1940s and 1950s, the private pilot flight test required them to demonstrate proficiency in 180-degree, power-off approaches from the downwind leg to a landing beyond and within 300 feet of a designated point on the runway. Power-off approaches were the norm in those days, and pilots were more prepared for an engine failure in the traffic pattern than they are now. Today the power approach is the approach of choice.

One possible reason for this is that engines are now considered more reliable. Another is that pilots are being trained to operate larger, more powerful airplanes that are not as conducive to power-off approaches. This does not mean, however, that we should ignore the possibility of a low-altitude engine failure. They can and do happen. Those within gliding range of the runway have it made; others are in a more precarious predicament.

Nor does this mean that one should develop the habit of making power-off approaches in high-horsepower, turbocharged engines, for example. This might not be good for such engines. A pilot can, however, execute higher and steeper approaches when the terrain surrounding the airport is unsuitable for an emergency landing.

When operating at busy airports, pilots often are required to substantially extend their downwind legs because of traffic. At such times, virtually all pilots maintain the traffic pattern altitude (typically 800 to 1,000 feet agl). They shouldn’t. As distance from the airport increases, they might consider allowing their airplanes to drift up and gain altitude that might allow them to better remain within gliding distance of the airport or some other potential landing site.

The point is that pilots do not seem to consider and plan for the possibility of engine failure—especially at low altitude—as much as they once did. How else can one explain why so many pilots go “GPS direct” without regard for the terrain over which they are flying? Most often, however, only a slight route modification enables the flight to pass over more hospitable terrain.

Perhaps the most traumatic low-altitude engine failure is the one that occurs shortly after takeoff and before sufficient altitude has been attained to allow gliding to a relatively safe haven.

According to a good friend who used to be an accident investigator for the NTSB, this also might be the easiest type of engine failure to avoid. He claims that the most likely cause of an engine failure during or shortly after takeoff is fuel mismanagement, either taking off on an empty tank or one that the pilot’s operating handbook cautions not to be used for takeoff.

This led me to develop a habit that I teach to all who are willing to listen. The first thing I do when I crawl into the cockpit of an airplane is to set the fuel-selector valve to the fullest tank, and I leave it there during engine start, taxi, preflight runup, and takeoff. In this way, there is time for the fuel system to prove its integrity. Switching tanks immediately before takeoff can be asking for trouble of the worst kind.