November 20, 2013

Engine Failure Part II - "Step away from your busted-ass vehicle"

I was a flight instructor on a mission in 1992, building time and experience whenever and wherever I could get it.  I desperately wanted to make it to the next rung of the ladder and managed to log just under 800 hours in the 9 months that I was employed as a full-time flight instructor.  Given the opportunity to fly, I almost never said no, regardless of time or reason...and I had two students in particular who tested that policy on a regular basis. Their names were Darren and Jeff and they worked an early morning shift that started at 3am.  Much more interested in playing around, taking their friends up for sight seeing tours and experimenting with different airplanes, they were a lot of fun, but neither was in any great hurry to get his license.  I literally lived across the street from the airport and was regularly snatched out of a deep sleep by one or both of them, "Hey man, wanna go fly?"  My wife was not a big fan.

On one such night, we snagged a Piper Cherokee and departed the Addison Airport just after midnight for an unscheduled lesson on nighttime landings.  We departed to the northeast and entered the pattern at what is now the Collin County Regional Airport (KTKI) for a landing on runway 18 with one of my red-eyed students at the controls.  The first approach and landing went as planned, but during the climb, the engine started to run a little rough.

Anytime a pilot flies a single-engine airplane at night or over water or mountainous terrain, he tends to form a close relationship with his engine, analyzing every unusual sound, every little hiccup.  The first tickle of roughness was slight enough that I thought it might be my imagination, but as we continued to climb, the engine began to develop undeniable issues that also caught the attention of my student.  He glanced in my direction looking for instruction and I summoned the phrase my instructor used on me last week while practicing engine-out procedures in the Cub, "whatcha gonna do now?"

"You have the airplane"

There's a fine line between letting a student learn as much as he can without letting him go so far down the wrong path that he might hurt himself.  Besides, if he hurts himself, then he's most likely going to hurt me too. Learning the location of that line is a difficult process for any instructor...and the line isn't necessarily in the same place for every student.  During my short tenure as a full time flight instructor, this was the only opportunity I ever had to instruct through an actual emergency and I wanted my student to get everything he could from the experience without actually jeopardizing our safety any more than it already was.  "You have the airplane," I said.
Typical airport traffic pattern.
We started a single turn from upwind to downwind as soon as it became clear that the roughness of the engine was not in our imagination.  I remember feeling a sense of relief as soon as I was sure we could glide back to the runway.  The airplane limped around the corner toward the downwind leg, still managing a slight climb, but as we passed through about 700 feet above the ground, the engine began to shake and cough violently before giving out completely.

You can practice this sort of thing from dawn to dusk, but until you've seen your one and only propeller hanging still and useless off the nose of your airplane, the true meaning of the word emergency really doesn't hit home.

With only minimal assistance from me, my student (I honestly can't remember if it was Jeff or Darren) turned the airplane directly toward the airport and performed a pretty good dead-stick landing in the opposite direction from which we had just taken off.  We rolled out on the runway and partially glided onto a 90 degree turnoff where we had to get out and push the plane clear of the runway, across a taxiway and onto the ramp where we tied it down and left it for the night.  The movie Men In Black didn't come out until 1997, but I smile now as I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie..."Step away from your busted ass vehicle." (Will Smith)

After a few high fives and a little time to let our heart rates settle, we opened the engine cowl to see if there was anything obvious to see.  Now I'm no mechanic, but even I could see that there was a significant gap between the body of the engine and the carburetor. The plane spent the night at TKI and my student and I hitched a ride home with my wife...who was not impressed in the least and none too happy to be awake at 2am.


As a side note, I got a speeding ticket that night trying to get my student to work in time for his 3am shift. Knowing full well that I made very little money as an instructor, he insisted that I give him the ticket, promising that he would take care of it. I remember him saying something about having a good attorney. "I'll make it go away or pay for it" he told me.

Apparently he forgot all about it.  Almost a year later, I received a warrant for my arrest in the mail...something about failure to appear. Trust but verify.


This post is part 2 of a 4 part series. Check in next week to read about three engine failures I experienced while flying turboprops at a regional airline.


  1. Well handled. I admire you for redeeming the circumstance by letting your student handle a real-life engine-out. I look forward to hearing more.

    1. Hello Merlin, thanks for the comment. Learning how far to let a student go before intervening is a tough lesson to learn for the instructor, but it pays big dividends to the student. Next week's post is about three engine failures I experienced at a regional airline I worked for in the 90's. Thanks for reading along.

  2. It's a confidence boost when your instructor trusts you enough to deal with an emergency. Quick background: I was weeks away from my checkride, and the plane I was flying with my CFI that day I cut my solo flight short because the oil temp was going redline. My CFI was playing examiner, so he was asking all sorts of questions then the engine just randomly quit. I looked at him expecting him to take over, and his response was "your PIC don't look at me". I go through the engine out items in my head and I discovered he shut off the fuel switch. He had me go through the rest of the steps to a simulated landing. That "lesson" also served as a lesson in CRM.

    1. Switched off the fuel? I never tried that one, but it sounds like you learned a good lesson. Thanks for the comment Keith.