Never Again: Engine seizure

February 1, 2008

This would be a quick out and back business trip in the 1989 Piper Malibu Mirage to Piggott, a small farming community in northeast Arkansas.

The overcast was layered between 2,000 to 3,000 feet over most of Northeast Texas and Arkansas. At 10,000 feet msl a clear blue sky opened up above a field of brilliant bright white clouds, and once I got to my cruising altitude of 15,000 msl I settled down for a nice, smooth ride with a great tailwind. Things could not be better!

I checked the power setting, turned up the cabin heat, and looked up the weather near my destination. Then all of a sudden, vibrations shook the airplane to such a degree that I wondered if part of the propeller had come off. I had heard stories of airplanes losing a piece of the propeller rendering the airplane uncontrollable. As this horrible image passed through my mind, the entire left windshield and part of the right windshield turned completely black as oil splashed from the front of the airplane. The vibrations continued, but I could not see the cowling to determine what was happening. Yet, with oil on the windshield, there was no doubt the engine was quickly dying.

I reduced power and moved the fuel switch to “Off.” As the airplane slowed, the vibrations stopped completely and the noise dropped significantly. Since I had pulled the throttle way back, the gear-unsafe warning chime came on, joining a rushing wind sound from the front. Something bad had happened.

I am not exactly sure what I told air traffic control, but they understood I had an engine-out emergency, and that the aircraft’s windshield was covered by oil. ATC cleared me to a lower altitude and advised that Arkadelphia’s airport was 20 miles to the east. But I had already punched in “Nearest” on the GPS and was headed to Gurdon Lowe Field, only 13 miles away. I asked ATC to call the airport and advise them of the situation.

I planned to get over the airport and spiral down until the runway became visible, hoping for enough altitude to maneuver for landing. I arrived over the airport at about the same time I went back into instrument meteorological conditions, around 10,000 feet msl. It was not until I entered the clouds that I realized without an operating engine I had no vacuum pump and, therefore, no reliable vacuum-driven attitude indicator and directional gyro. I used the airspeed indicator and the turn coordinator as primary pitch and bank instruments and held the airplane in as steady a spiral as possible, trying to stay near Gurdon. I hoped I would pop out of IMC soon and in time to find the runway.

A most welcome sight appeared at about 3,000 feet msl when through the left windshield I saw the airport directly below me. Looking through the left side window, I entered a downwind, followed by short base. I kept the airplane high and close in, knowing I could add flaps or slip the aircraft on final to get down quickly if needed.

The dark oily windscreen limited all forward visibility from the left seat. I could slip the airplane creating forward visibility through the left side window and then kick in rudder a few feet over the runway and land blind ahead. But at about 300 feet agl, I abandoned that thought. A small area of the windshield’s extreme right side was oil free, so I tossed papers, instrument approach charts, my wireless phone, and anything else in the right seat to the back of the airplane. The right seat back was in the full upright position, a tight fit for my tall frame, and my headset was knocked off as I threw myself into it. With my head pressed against the right window, I could only see the right edge of the runway. I touched down firmly and braked hard. The airplane slowed, and I was relieved to know I was going to be OK.

The airplane ended up on the left side of the runway with about 300 feet of runway remaining. I slowly got myself together and realized I was shaking as I climbed into the back of the airplane toward the exit.

Once outside the aircraft, I noticed the number two cylinder poking through the left cowling; the cowling metal had frayed out in the slipstream as a result. This had probably caused the unusual wind noise I had heard. I stood there for about five minutes wondering what to do next and then called my boss with the news.

The next day, I flew to Gurdon with our airplane mechanic to look under the Malibu’s cowling. What we saw took our breath away. Much of the forward portion of the engine was broken into chunks that were scattered all over the engine compartment. The number two cylinder was thrown completely from its normal position. It looked like the number two cylinder piston rod had broken at the piston and though the rod was free from the piston, it was still firmly attached to the crankshaft, which unmercifully had thrashed the whole forward portion of the engine. I had never seen anything like it. Fuel lines were severed, oil was splattered everywhere, and shrapnel had damaged or destroyed just about every component in the forward engine area. It was a dreadful scene to behold.

Looking back on this flight, I have tremendous appreciation for the excellent instructors who taught me well and thereby helped me deal with an unexpected horrifying situation. I have grown as a pilot, instructor, and person through this experience. I now have a greater understanding and appreciation for the interrelatedness of airplane systems and will readily share this critical knowledge with others.

Joe Casey, AOPA 1089878, holds an airline transport pilot certificate and is a certified flight instructor. An FBO owner and 6,500-hour pilot, he also is a captain in the United States Army Reserve flying UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

“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 neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.