November 12, 2013

Engine Failure - Part I

I shared a story a few weeks ago about airline pilots flying general aviation aircraft. GA flying really is "good for the soul," but it also reinforces skills that are easily lost in a world increasingly dependent on automation. I've been going through what has become a surprisingly long process to get checked out in a Legend Cub offered for rent at a nearby airport. Long only because I haven't heeded the advice I often give to the student pilots I often and don't take breaks.  They will cost you both time and money.

The company who insures this little gem of an airplane wants me to get 10 hours of instruction before they'll turn me loose.  This, in spite of the fact that I already have a tail wheel sign-off and I'm already checked out in a Cub that is, unfortunately, owned by another individual and no longer available for rent.  Honestly though, I don't mind the extra instruction. Given my limited experience in GA planes over the last 20 years, I'm not entirely comfortable at the controls of an airplane that weighs a fraction of what I would consider minimum fuel for landing in the airplane I fly for a living. Besides, my instructor is a friend, and it would be fine with me if he went along every time I went out to fly.

While flying home after my last lesson, I was doing my best to look like I knew what I was doing.  I do hate looking like an idiot in front of my friend and instructor.  I was focused on navigating the airplane, maintaining altitude and looking for traffic while keeping an eye out for those pesky radio towers, something I rarely have to worry about when flying the 737.

It had been a good lesson and I felt good about my performance. I was comfortable...maybe a little too much so...because any instructor, worth his weight in av gas, knows when his student is feeling a little too comfortable and uses that moment to teach a lesson.

Watcha gonna do now?

My instructor, my friend, my buddy, chose that moment to teach me a lesson and put me in my place. He reached forward, put his hand on the throttle and reduced power to idle. "You just lost your engine dude...whatcha gonna do now?"

Engine failures are commonplace during training cycles in the simulator, but since I never know exactly when one will occur, the only smart thing to do is to be continually prepared. Every takeoff is a possible engine failure. Honestly though, I have that same mind set when flying the real prepared.

I suppose I should have been more prepared on this flight too, but I have to admit the engine "failure" caught me by surprise. I looked left then right before taking a look over the nose of the airplane where I saw what looked like a short, grassy runway disappearing under the nose. I'm guessing that my instructor would have had words for me if I had overlooked a perfectly good runway in favor of one of the many, much less suitable options within gliding distance of our current position.

We were pretty close to the ground, cruising along at about 1,500 feet AGL, when the engine "failed," and by the time it fully registered, the runway in question was completely out of view. I considered making a right 360 degree turn to get down and actually started the turn before deciding I didn't have enough room for the maneuver.  I could handle coming in a little high, but I most certainly did NOT want to come up short. Instead, I turned back toward the runway and made several S-turns as I tried to get down.

After I got the airplane headed in the right direction, I took a few seconds to focus on the obvious reasons for an engine failure.  Oddly enough, engine out procedures in the Cub aren't really all that different from loss of all thrust procedures in a large jet.  You've probably heard the phrase "suck, squeeze, bang, blow." It sounds dirty, but isn't, and accurately describes the inner workings of both piston and turbine engines. Both airplanes suck air, compress it before adding fuel and spark then blow the exhaust out the other end. (See images below.)  The biggest difference is that most piston engines treat the "blow" part of the equation as waste while a turbine engine uses it as thrust.

Suck                       Squeeze                      Bang                        Blow

Believe it or not, I've actually practiced this maneuver in an MD80 simulator.  Since I'm required to demonstrate an engine failure during the most critical phase of flight, most engine failures during training occur during takeoff.  An engine failure before V1 obviously results in an aborted takeoff while failures at any point after V1 result in a single-engine climb, approach and landing...that's the norm.  But I had an instructor years ago who wanted me to see how well the MD80 could glide after the loss of both engines.

We took off from runway 18L at DFW (again the simulator), performed a normal takeoff and climb profile only to have both engines flame out as we climbed through 2,000 feet.  From the earliest days of my flight training, I was taught that you could not return to the airport after the loss of all thrust.  If my instructor simulated an engine failure while climbing out in a Cessna 172, I'd get my hand slapped for even looking over my shoulder to see if it looked like I could get back to the airport.  But apparently, that isn't the case for every airplane and it wasn't the case for the MD80.  

We had briefed this maneuver ahead of time, so when the engines spooled down, I rolled the airplane into a hard left turn, lowered the nose to maintain speed, and as we completed the turn I found that, of all things, we were high. Honestly, I couldn't believe it. I actually had trouble getting the airplane down and landed a little long on runway 35C.  It can be done.

Back to the Cub...

I knew full well that my instructor wanted to see me attempt the landing, so the diagnostic procedures I demonstrated were just for show, and after running through a few quick checks, I refocused my attention on flying the airplane. Even with the extra turns, I was both high and fast, so I slipped the airplane to get back on the proper glide path and managed to make what turned out to be my best three-point landing yet in the Cub.

A little high and hot...slipping into another airport earlier in the day.
As we rolled to a stop, I looked to my right and noticed a large white house sitting next to an equally impressive hangar.  Both were closed up tight and didn't appear to be occupied, but I assumed we had just landed on someone's personal runway...and might be garnering some unwanted attention.  After a quick back taxi, we were, once again, in the air on our way home.

That night, while sitting in front of the television in a mild vegetative state, I paused for a while on a Discovery Channel show called Airplane Repo, an ever so slightly over the top reality show about the guys who repossess airplanes and helicopters for a living.  The episode featured Kevin Lacey, one of the shows repo pilots, and the recovery of a Piper Cub belonging to well known aerobatic pilot Spanky Galloway.  The airplane in the story was successfully repossessed, but delays threw off the schedule and forced a twilight landing on Mr. Galloway's grass an airplane with no lights or electrical system.

To my surprise, I recognized Mr. Galloway's house, runway and hangar.  My little engine failure exercise resulted in a landing on that same runway just a few hours earlier. As a matter of fact, the Cub depicted on the episode experienced mechanical difficulties that forced Mr. Lacey to perform an off airport landing of his own...not unlike the one I had just practiced.

Pilots at all experience levels practice engine failures, but the real thing is rare and off airport landings are even more unusual. Of course, one of the major benefits to flying a multi-engine airplane is that you generally have a spare. However, as comedian Ron White put it in one of my favorite stand up routines, that other engine may only get you as far as the scene of the crash.

As rare and unusual as they are, I've had more than a few experiences with failed engines...a full blown engine failure in a Piper Cherokee and several precautionary engine shut-downs...two in an EMB-120, one in an ATR-72 and my most recent, in an MD82 on my way to Mexico City.

I'd like to spend a little time explaining those failures and don't want to keep you too long check back next week for the rest of the story.

To be continued...


  1. This is a really cool story! I love watching Airplane Repo, even though its completely over the top.

    I remember watching that episode and questioning whether or not they made up the engine failure, as that'd be a really easy thing to "fake." Anyways, I think it's extremely cool that you landed on the same field, and saw the episode later that night... what a coincidence!

    Thanks for the great post, looking forward to the stories about those real-life engine shutdowns,

    1. Haha...I do love the show, but it really is over the top. Aviation related TV shows are few and far between, so I'm forcing myself not to be to critical.

      Thanks for the comment Swayne, I enjoyed reading your write-up on Embry-Riddle and look forward to seeing where the road takes you.

  2. Really good reading Brad!! I loved Airplane Repo when it was Nick Popovich - these new guys - I haven't caught on to it with them...

    Going to drop you an email Brad - I have something to ask!! :)

  3. Had your instructor reviewed the details for that strip ahead of time and verified you could land safely? I'm surprised you didn't transition into a go-around once on short final. In Australia where I fly, it's typical that private strips require prior permission and you can't normally descend below 500 feet unless you've obtained said permission. Obviously in a real emergency landing without permission or clearance is fine, but I find it really surprising this was done in a drill without being familiar with the airfield. If nothing else, there could have been some unseen anomaly in the surface that could have damaged the plane on roll-out...