Never Again

This can't be happening

July 1, 2007

I was flying a three-year-old Cessna 172SP to check out a student, who had earned his private pilot certificate just three weeks earlier. We flew to the practice area and did the usual air work, including slow flight, steep turns, and stalls. Then we headed over to a nearby airport and practiced a few takeoffs and landings. We flew back to the practice area, and I pulled the power to idle to simulate an engine-out emergency. The student correctly set up the airplane for best glide speed, and he found a suitable field to simulate an off-airport landing. We ended the maneuver a little higher than desired, and we began a climbout in the direction of our home airport. As we reached 2,000 feet, I pulled the power again.

The student then asked me what I was doing — as if I were crazy. I responded, "What do you think? — a simulated engine failure." He then asked why the tachometer still read 2,000 rpm. I found this odd, so I advanced the throttle to provide maximum power. But then the engine power dropped to around 1,300 to 1,400 rpm. The first thought that ran through my head was, "Oh, darn." The next few thoughts were all denial: "This is not happening; there is no way this is happening." While thinking the engine was going to roar back to full power any second, I began to pitch for best glide speed and headed to the nearest field that looked good. I tuned the radio frequency to 121.5 MHz and said, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, 3501J."

An air traffic controller came on the frequency and asked for my location. I responded, "Three-Five-Zero-One-Juliet is four miles from GOLDA Intersection; we've lost power and we're going to attempt to land in a field." The pilot of a nearby airplane told us he had us in sight and that he would stay with us. The controller came back and suggested we attempt to land at a very small private field only a few miles away. By now we were at only 1,000 feet, and I had no choice but to land. While all this was going on, I was adjusting every knob trying to get some power to the airplane.

I turned a base leg to the field, and immediately recognized I was too high. Looking back at the situation, I now realize that the engine, although not producing enough power to maintain level flight, was still producing some power, which I could not control.

This was by far the scariest point of the flight. Up until then, everything had just been instinctive: pitching down for best glide speed, picking a field, and declaring an emergency. But as I found myself about 500 feet above the ground I realized that if I didn't do this right, there would be no second chance. I might have practiced a million engine outs, but I was never prepared for this feeling. As the airplane descended through 250 feet I decided to make a turn 90 degrees to the left and use what was left of the field in that direction.

I quickly announced, "We are going down." (Later my student told me that it was that radio call that scared him.)

The airplane continued to descend, but the terrain ahead began to rise. "Where did this bump come from?" I thought. I started to pitch up the nose to meet the angle of the rising terrain. The airplane touched down surprisingly gently as we approached the top of the small hill. At the crest of the hill the airplane became slightly airborne as the ground dropped beneath us. We touched down again and commenced our bumpy rollout until the airplane stopped in the field.

The next 30 minutes produced three police cars, a Department of Natural Resources helicopter, a U.S. Customs Blackhawk helicopter, and a bunch of local photographers. I got in touch with the flight school the airplane belonged to, and the school sent someone to get us.

Less than three minutes had passed from the time we lost power to the time we were on the ground. A couple of hours later, after I stopped shaking, someone from the FAA came out to take a look. I described the situation and my suspicion that the throttle cable had broken.

The FAA inspector took two seconds to confirm that the throttle linkage indeed had separated. I had a perfectly good running engine; there was just no way I could control it.

I would like to tell you that just prior to touchdown I pulled the fuel shutoff knob, cracked open the doors, and tightened my seat belt, but I didn't do any of those things. Although I had spent many hours practicing engine outs with students, only on occasion did I mention those before-touchdown ditching procedures. Those procedures are now part of every simulated emergency I practice.

I also now make sure every student who trains with me experiences simulated emergencies in places other than our home airport on downwind. As surprising as it may be, it often takes numerous tries before students and certificated pilots judge the distance to the field correctly and maneuver the airplane into the proper position without power.

Finally, I learned to never be completely relaxed just because the airplane is new. Many of us now fly airplanes built within the past five years and we may find ourselves thinking that since the airplane is new, nothing is going to happen. But I know different.

Doug Tucci, AOPA 3698304, is a certificated flight instructor with an instrument airplane rating. At the time of the incident, he was a 900-hour pilot with 55 hours in a Cessna 172SP.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.