At about 7 a.m., on March 15, 2004, two passengers and I went to the airport to launch on an IFR flight from Texas to Kansas.
When we arrived, my 1998 Beechcraft A36 Bonanza was sitting in front of the FBO, with the main and tip tanks topped off the previous night. I conducted a typical preflight inspection, verified the fuel level in the two main tanks, and sumped both to check for color, water, or debris in the fuel. I also visually confirmed that the tip tanks were full. It is not easy to sump the tip tanks and I did not do it. Everything looked fine.
The ceiling was reported at 200 feet, with tops at about 4,000, wind calm, and visibility about three nautical miles. After receiving the IFR clearance, which was to turn east after departure and climb to 2,000 feet, we departed.
Just as I leveled the airplane at 2,000 feet, in solid instrument meteorological conditions, the engine sputtered briefly and then quit totally. The engine temperature readout showed that all six cylinders were extremely hot. I had no idea what had happened, but it was obvious to me that the engine was destroyed.
These actions took place — in this order — within the following 30 seconds:
I turned the electric pneumatic standby pump on to keep the artificial horizon working.
I told the passengers, "We have an emergency, buckle up tightly...and don't worry — I will land it safely."
I closed the mixture and throttle.
I engaged the autopilot to hold our heading, disabled the altitude hold, dropped the flaps fully, and trimmed the airspeed to 65 to 75 knots. (Best-glide speed on my Bonanza was 110 knots, but since I was in the clouds and fully expected to land in the top of a pine tree, I chose to slow down as much as possible.) I did not drop the landing gear at this point.
I contacted departure control and explained we had an emergency. I do not remember the controller's reply.
As the airplane continued to descend through the clouds, I watched the altimeter, directional gyro, airspeed, and artificial horizon. As the altimeter passed through 150 feet, we saw the ground. Outside my left window, I saw a very small field with a house on the left side and a barn at the far end. (I was to learn later that the field was 150 feet wide by 350 feet long.) There were trees all around the perimeter of the field, and I made a snap decision to put the airplane down in that field. Since I was approaching at approximately a 45-degree angle, and would cross the field's edge about one-third of the way down its length, I knew I couldn't lower the nose and land normally. I would have passed the other end or edge of the field and gone into the trees.
With these thoughts in mind, I dropped the gear, raised the flaps, and placed the airplane in an almost vertical — left wing down — slip to lose altitude before I crossed the field. At about 25 feet above the ground, I leveled off and pulled the airplane up to "pancake" stall it to the ground.
I remember the zero-G feeling as we began the drop to Earth.
The impact of the crash knocked the front-seat passenger and me out, but the passenger in the backseat sustained only minor injuries and he called 911 on his cell phone. This passenger remembered us going left wing down, pivoting to level, climbing a few feet, and then dropping like a rock. Then when he looked out the window, he saw a mule standing outside, looking at him. What a surreal experience!
The NTSB later determined that there was pure jet fuel in the tip tanks and a mixture of avgas and Jet-A in the mains.
I learned several very valuable lessons from this experience.
First, about a month before this flight, I had gone through a mental simulation of what I would do if I lost the engine in IFR conditions or at night. I do not think I would have been able to go through my 30-second action list and safely land this airplane without this preplanning. There is not much time to think when the engine quits at low altitude and you are going down.
Second, I will be at the airport to watch the fueling of my airplane whenever possible.
Third, and maybe most important, don't ever quit flying the airplane! Keeping the nose from hitting the ground first probably saved all of our lives.
Good luck also played an important role. I forgot to shut the fuel flow off before we crashed. But the nosewheel penetrated soft ground and the airplane spun around 180 degrees, separating the engine from the cockpit. Although fuel leaked onto the ground, it was several feet away from the still very hot engine and there was no fire. Also, finding a flat field in the midst of a pine forest was pure luck!
At present, I am back in the air again with another Bonanza, enjoying flying and thankful every day that I am still alive.
David King, AOPA 4367921, is a private pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings. He has accumulated more than 3,000 hours of flight time in 22 years.
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