Technique: Engine-out landings at night

Tips from two who have been there

November 20, 2013

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Legal and possibly insurance issues remain from the following two incidents, so the pilots were asked to avoid those and just share lessons learned. Both crashed at night, one into Tampa Bay in Florida and the other into the living room of a top-floor apartment near Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. What follows is a brief description of each incident, and tips the pilots generously provided.

Anthony Marsh (no relation to the author) was en route from Pennsylvania to Clearwater, Florida, when his engine quit at 1,000 feet as he lined up on final approach to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. His gauge showed fuel remaining. He wanted to land on the Courtney Campbell Causeway but realized heavy truck traffic guaranteed he would be run over. His only remaining option was water, which he could not see. Slammed into the windshield—his seatbelt was either loose or not on—he was stunned for a few seconds as water rose to his face. The cockpit filled in 10 seconds. As the Piper Cherokee 180 settled to the bottom on its nose, he kicked a window out and headed to the surface; the aircraft began to tip over, nearly trapping him. Here’s what he learned.

“I took my shoes off to relax,” Marsh recalled. “I was not belted in. I have a bad habit of not belting in until long final. [Now] I don’t think you should be unbelted at any time.”

Marsh was at low altitude during the approach. “I can tell you that dragging that airplane in was a really bad decision. Had I been at 3,000 or 4,000 feet on that extended centerline as I should have been, I could have glided to [one of two] runways with no problem. I was told never to drag it in over water. I did it anyway. I will fly way higher at night.” How many times have we heard it said that altitude is your friend?

“Also, if any part of your journey is over water, you should be equipped. You don’t know. You can’t say it’s only six miles and I’m going from dry land over six miles of water to another piece of land. Heck, I can glide that far. No, sometimes you can’t. It depends on where you are, what you are doing, and how catastrophic your failure is.

“I left several things off the checklist, including cracking that door [unlocking it to trail in the airstream]. That almost cost me my life. You need to practice [the checklist] over and over again. I could not find the latch and there was no more air in the cockpit. I wouldn’t have had to mule-kick out a window. I was in my stocking feet. I remember saying to myself, this is it. Now you are going to die.

“I kept flying the airplane, and that saved me. I didn’t give up and say, I don’t want to be a pilot anymore. Had I lost my engine five minutes earlier I would have been over the city of Clearwater. I would have died and so would have some other people. There’s nowhere to land in the city,” Marsh said.

Marsh’s concern in early 2013 about being over a city at night was Kent Larson’s reality. His Cessna Cardinal’s engine quit around midnight in May 2013 at 3,500 feet near Dulles International Airport while flying for his company, Aerial Photographers, located in Vienna, Virginia. He crashed through the roof of an apartment building into a living room, and his first memory is seeing the refrigerator in the kitchen. He had crashed at the lowest airspeed possible while trying to glide to a street intersection that was “lit up like a ball field.” No one died, but Larson had injuries requiring screws in his ankle and 25 stitches in his arm. Others involved in the accident were, for the most part, unscratched.

The impact was like sitting down hard in a soft chair; the airplane was broken at the firewall, the nose and tail bent upward, popping out the windscreen in the process. It was one easy step through the windscreen onto the living room floor. “Is anybody hurt?” he asked as the occupants poured from their bedrooms. He made sure everyone left the apartment to wait on the street for emergency vehicles.

You heard during your early pilot training to consider a black area of the terrain for your landing. Even the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook says, “Plan an emergency approach to an unlighted portion.” Larson considered that, but is glad he rejected it. The black area he saw was discovered
days later in daylight to be a rock quarry. That isn’t to say the advice is bad; it’s just that he would have been at the bottom of a rock quarry.

Larson’s first suggestion is to know your position relative to the roads that could serve as emergency landing sites, or maybe even fields. “I’ve flown [that area] hundreds of times,” he said, but even with his knowledge of the Dulles toll road, he couldn’t find it when he needed it. “Have that relationship in your head.” He kept as close to the Dulles airport as controllers would allow in case something happened. The crash site was only 1.2 miles from one of the Dulles runways.

“Have as much altitude as possible. Altitude is time. The higher you are, the more options you have,” Larson said. If you are going to fly over heavily populated areas, you have few options for landing sites. He also suggested following roads at night. “Interstate 70 is as straight as it gets. Keep within gliding distance.”

Larson also suggests having two GPS units, one of them portable. That’s especially important to him because he spends long hours at 2,500 feet over metropolitan areas. He had a Garmin 430 in his aircraft, and carried a Garmin 496 as well. The 496 stays set on nearest airports. “I can’t imagine not having at least two.” One time his 430 went blank when tuned to nearest airports, while the 496 was still identifying them.

Larson and Marsh did the same thing that kept them alive; they flew the airplane, keeping control at all times. For Larson, that meant controlling his speed, sitting down hard in what felt like a soft chair, and living to see the refrigerator in the kitchen after arriving in the living room.

Email alton.marsh@aopa.org

View the NBC story online about the pilot who crashed near Dulles International Airport into an apartment living room.