In February 1974, I was assigned to ferry an Aero Commander Model 520 from Missouri to Ohio. Normally I would have jumped at the chance to build flying time, but on this occasion I was hesitant.
The Commander's right engine had failed en route from Ohio to Oklahoma, when the corporate pilot, a friend of mine, had his chief executive officer on board. After a successful single-engine landing at an airport in Missouri, his boss had told him to get rid of the 520 and buy a new airplane. The Commander was traded toward the purchase of a Piper Seneca from the company I flew for.
After the Commander's right engine had been replaced, my friend was to ferry the 520 back to Ohio, but he kept coming up with excuses. He seemed unusually reluctant to fly the aircraft again. If he didn't feel comfortable flying the 520, I didn't think I had any business flying it either. But my boss wanted the Commander returned to Ohio and I finally agreed.
About two hours and 25 minutes into the planned 3.5-hour flight the right engine failed. My first reaction was to switch fuel tanks, but this airplane model didn't have a fuel selector. I confirmed the right engine's failure with rudder and verified by pulling back the right throttle. I was not able to restart the engine, so I feathered the propeller to improve the aircraft's ability to hold altitude with only one engine operating.
While intently watching for the prop to stop, I felt a change in the aircraft's yaw and it became quieter in the cockpit. I had a good idea what had happened, but I was focused on confirming that the right propeller would feather.
When the prop finally stopped I was pleased to see the Commander still holding the desired 120 mph, but now the airplane was descending 1,800 feet per minute. At first I thought this was extremely poor single-engine performance. Then I pulled back the left throttle. There was no change in the engine's performance, confirming what I had feared: The left engine had also failed.
This wasn't supposed to happen. The fuel gauge indicated fuel in the tanks, confirming my calculations. I wondered if I had overlooked a critical item.
I was reluctant to feather the left propeller, as I was afraid I would find myself sitting on the ground with two feathered propellers and a busted airplane when there might be a chance I could get one engine operating again. But I was rapidly running out of altitude and ideas. I had never been trained for a dual engine failure, nor had I seen a published best-glide speed for such a scenario. I decided to hold 120 mph, which seemed a reasonable airspeed.
I noticed two farmhouses about a half-mile apart on a road with power poles along one side. Afraid of hitting wires, I decided to land alongside the road in a field near the closest farmhouse. The field looked rough so I decided to keep the landing gear up. At the last moment I realized I had really blown it: I had not lowered the flaps and the airspeed had gotten too slow to compensate for the drag of the windmilling left propeller. Why had I not accepted my predicament and feathered the prop? I pulled the yoke all the way back in an effort to get the nose up just before contacting the ground.
I was knocked unconscious, gasping for breath when I came to. The absence of movement and sound was strange. My first thought was to exit the airplane before it caught fire. But I was stunned and could only sit in disbelief as I caught my breath. Any movement caused pain in my back.
After several minutes I slowly moved to the rear of the airplane, dragging my coat along. The door was ajar and no longer fit the opening in the fuselage. I could see I had broken the airplane's back, and was pretty sure I had also hurt mine. I lay down on the bench seat next to the door and pushed on the door with my feet. This caused incredible back pain, but it opened enough for me to get through.
I stood up using the wing's trailing edge to help steady myself and put on my coat. After walking a short distance, I stopped and looked back at the airplane. The fuel cap was hanging from its chain and some of the fuel tank's rubber bladder was protruding from the fuel filler opening. It dawned on me at last why both engines had failed. I had overlooked the obvious. Despite what the fuel gauge had said, the airplane had run out of fuel.
When I finally made it to the road a car appeared beside me. The driver asked if I was OK, and I told him I needed help to lie down. His name was John and he helped me stretch out on his car's backseat. He lived in the farmhouse nearby, and when he had looked out of his living room window he had been surprised to see a parked airplane, so he had driven over to investigate.
While recovering from my broken back, I learned what had happened. The 520 is a high-wing airplane with a large center fuel tank and two smaller tanks in each wing. The tanks are connected and both engines receive fuel from the center tank. A single fueling point is located on top of the center tank, and the fuel flows by gravity into the wing fuel tanks — a design that does not require a fuel selector and a crossfeed valve. Before this flight, the pin connecting the tab on top of the fuel cap to the locking arms on the bottom had rusted and broken. When the fuel cap was replaced, it had seemed the cap was properly attached and secure — the tab could be turned and pushed into the indentation on top of the fuel cap. But the locking arms had not locked the fuel cap onto the fitting in the fuel filler opening. When the cap came off during flight, fuel had siphoned, the center fuel tank's rubber bladder had collapsed, and the sending unit's float hadn't dropped to indicate the rapid fuel loss.
I also learned there was a big furrow in the part of the field where I went down. Hitting the furrow's mound of frozen dirt, which I never saw, had aggravated my extremely bad landing. A local newspaper article headlined "Ohio Pilot Survives Plane Crash in Area" was a good description of my landing.
With more knowledge and experience I would have been dealing with what was happening, instead of thinking about what had happened. I was more passenger than pilot when things started going wrong. I allowed myself to be mentally distracted and failed to do my most important job: Fly the airplane and always think ahead of it.
My attitude toward flying has changed as a result of that flight; my backache assures I will never forget.
William N. Rimer, AOPA 429021, retired with more than 20,000 hours' flying time in Alaska. He holds airline transport pilot and CFI certificates with multiengine and instrument ratings.
"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 [email protected] or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.