By John Bridel
It was August 3, 1986, a lovely CAVU day in Texas, ideal for a local VFR flight for that famously expensive hamburger. My son Paul and I did a normal preflight check on a rented V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza 35; the tanks were full and everything looked good.
I was a relatively new pilot then with only 250 hours of pilot-in-command time, but I had rented this same airplane five times the previous month for short trips, including one to Galveston, with no problems or equipment failures.
Looking forward to another enjoyable trip to Scholes International at Galveston Airport (GLS), we departed Skylakes Airport (now 37XA, Skydive Houston) into clear blue, sunny skies. The direct flight distance was only 71 nautical miles, but I planned a pilotage route to stay on the southwest side under the 3,000-foot terminal control airspace for Hobby Airport (HOU), which would add another 10 nm and also keep us clear of some high towers en route.
We climbed to 2,500 feet and settled in to enjoy the ride and the scenery. All was smooth sailing when suddenly the engine quit, an ominous silence except for the sound of rushing air. In semi-panic I trimmed for best glide speed and looked for a suitable landing spot.
We were still over a densely packed residential area on the west side of Houston, but I saw a less populated area and some greenery about two miles to the north northwest and turned the airplane toward it. We had probably lost about 500 feet already, and I told Paul to pull his seat belt tight. I then switched tanks and tried to restart the engine. No luck. Now we were at about 1,800 feet and getting more worried.
There was no smell and no oil or smoke visible from the left seat, so at the time this seemed to me like either fuel starvation or lack of spark. This Bonanza had a back-up gear extension lever located behind the passenger seat that I frantically found with my right hand and started cranking while trying to restart the engine. Still no luck and now we were down to about 1,200 feet and headed for a field that looked long and flat enough to land on.
Continuing to crank and trying to restart I got lined up to avoid some trees near the field, then at about 1,000 feet the engine spluttered. As soon as I advanced the throttle it died again. I repeated the sequence that worked, and the engine fired up again, and this time I very gently advanced the throttle just far enough to maintain level flight.
Luckily we were now only a few miles away from our departure airport so I decided to try a slow climb, which fortunately worked with an intermittent splutter so we limped our way back at about 800 feet. We were on a straight-in final approach when the engine quit again, but I had enough altitude to make the runway for a controlled dead-stick landing.
While we were waiting to be towed in Paul said, “Dad, why are you sweating?”
It turned out that the fuel filter was clogged with sediment caused by poor maintenance. In my opinion, this is a prime example in favor of aircraft ownership as opposed to rentals.
If this were to happen to me today, I think I would touch down in that field rather than risk finding another safe landing spot at such low altitude, but that’s what comes with the benefit of a little more flight experience. On that particular day, thank heavens our guardian angel kept busy.