On the morning of July 16 there was no reason to believe that this day would be any different than others.
My first grandson, Luke William Walker, was to be born in Hillsboro, Texas, and it was my wife's and my privilege to fly the airplane from the Chicago area to Texas to be present for that blessed event. But first I had to take care of a business obligation. As an insurance adjuster I had been assigned a major hurricane loss and I made arrangements for the inspection of the damage caused by Hurricane Dennis in Atmore, Alabama, approximately 500 miles to the east.
I began my travels at 8:00 a.m., performing a routine preflight, which included making sure that the aircraft was fully fueled, that the fuel was not contaminated, that there was proper oil in the engine, and that the aircraft was airworthy for the trip.
I took off in VFR conditions and climbed to 3,500 feet to catch favorable winds aloft. With a groundspeed of approximately 145 knots this would be a flight slightly more than three hours in duration.
One hour into the flight I changed tanks and burned approximately 35 minutes of fuel from the second tank when without any warning, the engine began to run very rough for five to10 seconds; it then stopped developing any power although the propeller continued to spin.
I had been taught what to do in case of an in-flight emergency but never knew exactly how I would react in a real emergency. That is the acid test, and I am happy to report that I passed it! I followed the procedures, turned on the electric fuel pump, changed tanks, assumed best glide speed, and did everything possible to try to resume normal flight. I punched "nearest" on my GPS and it showed Pollack Airport (L66) in Grant Parish, Louisiana, to be the closest airport at 28.5 nm away. A quick calculation of airspeed, distance and altitude showed that I was not going to make it to the airport.
The roughness of the engine and the way that it lost power sounded as if a fuel tank had run dry. But each of the tanks had sufficient fuel. Although the fuel pressure gauge showed that there was plenty of fuel pressure, it was obvious that this engine was not going to spring back to life.
I was over a large forested area and parallel to a clearing in the forest that was put in for a gas pipeline. I descended through 600 feet, and turned a base leg to final, put the landing gear down, and recognized that this landing would be survivable, but it certainly was not an inviting landing field.
As I was going through 200 feet I noticed a hunting road to my left and I had to use every bit of concentration available to me to keep from turning to that road for landing. The road was perpendicular to my final path to the pipeline and making that turn at 200 feet would probably result in my demise. The pipeline was going to be the off-field forced-landing spot but one final thing came into sight that created my last flying problem. Directly ahead of me was a fence with fence poles made of massive railroad ties spread about 12 feet apart. I had enough altitude to flare over the fence but at the other side there would be no more energy with which to pick exactly where to let the aircraft down.
I had the aircraft under positive control when it impacted the ground. The landing gear sheared off quickly slowing the aircraft down. The left wing hit a four-inch projecting metal pole and the aircraft came to rest. The metal pole ripped into the left wing approximately 18 inches tearing the wing's skin like tissue paper one inch from the left wing fuel tank. The Arrow was substantially damaged but I suffered no bruises or injury whatsoever.
I was now on the ground, in a forest break near Pollack Airport, and no one knew where I was or what had happened. With everything that had been going on, I had not turned the transponder to the emergency code of 7700 nor had I contacted anybody on the emergency channel of 121.5. So now I turned on the radio and broadcast a "May Day" on 121.5. A Continental Airlines flight heard my call and asked for my latitude and longitude. I also gave them my cell phone number.
What did I do as a professional insurance adjuster? I got out my camera, took 30 or 40 photographs, diagrammed the area, and dictated a statement of facts of the incident so that I would not forget any of the pertinent details. I pulled off the engine cowl to take a look at the engine but there were no telltale signs of what went wrong with the engine. Then, about 10 minutes later, my knees began to shake.
I walked out to the hunting camp road and when I got on top of a hill, my cell phone started ringing with calls from the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the local Grant Parish Sheriff. This was so remote an area that the Sheriff suggested that he drive around the area with his siren blaring, and when I heard the siren I was to call him and let him know that he was close. I never heard the siren, but not too many minutes later the Sheriff, local police, ambulances, and fire trucks pulled up.
People have asked me about my emotions during this event and I can say that training, preparation, and probably the adrenaline kept me focused on the duties at hand. There was no near death experience or trepidation. My job was to fly the airplane successfully to the ground and that is what I did. I was angry that my Piper Arrow had let me down and sad when I looked and saw that the aircraft was a likely a total loss.
So what had happened? Dawson Aircraft, in conjunction with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, did an engine teardown and found an intake valve had come out of the engine and was lying inside the valve cover of the No. 3 cylinder. As they got further into the engine, they recognized that an oil nozzle inside the crankcase had backed out from its threaded fitting and had whirled around inside the engine causing all types of impact damage. Those present at the engine teardown said that it looked like the whole inside of the engine was filled with shrapnel and that the engine had destroyed itself when the nozzle let go. There was nothing that could have given a hint of a problem before it happened.
What did I learn? I got very involved with maintaining positive control of the aircraft, which helped with the positive outcome of the engine-out landing. But, I should have also immediately broadcast a "May Day" and dialed in the emergency transponder code. I was very lucky to have been heard by the airliner in that remote spot in the forest.
William L. Hall, AOPA 549637, is CEO of an independent claim adjustment firm in Lombard, Illinois, handling major property and aviation claims. He is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 4,000 hours. Hall is a past president of the Organization of Flying Adjusters and an AOPA member since 1975.
Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the August issue of AOPA Pilot. The story shows that even an instructor can get caught off-guard.
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Posted Thursday, July 12, 2007 6:08:00 PM