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Those That Have and Those That Will….What You Can Do Before the Engine Fails

by Michael W. Brown
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Less than a century ago, when powered flight was in its infancy, any pilot possessing the skill and good fortune needed to amass flying time was well practiced in handling mechanical (particularly engine) failures. This was due to the comparatively primitive state of the technology at the time that afforded aviators many opportunities to perfect these talents. Fortunately, as time marched on, aviation made advancements in engine design and manufacturing. Today, in-flight engine failures have evolved from an operational norm, to an event that occurs at intervals measured in the thousands of hours.

Still, when engines do fail, they have an annoying and potentially tragic tendency to do so at the most inopportune time. Of course “inopportune” could be any time other then when sitting on the ramp. However, the degree of inconvenience tends to be inversely proportional to the volume of air beneath you—the lower you are, the fewer your options, the greater the nuisance.

For this reason, a great deal has been written on how best to manage engine-out emergencies (in a single-engine aircraft) at lower altitudes, particularly during take-off. Although a century’s worth of aviation literature has left few parts of this discussion uncovered, it can be argued that any experience adds to the sum total of our knowledge.

Not long ago, I found myself with the opportunity to add my own first hand account to this existing reserve of knowledge. Because I had the good fortune to weather such an emergency unscathed, I was able to gain a lesson of immeasurable value. While you may never find yourself behind a malfunctioning power plant, my hope is that insights and lessons gained during my incident will help you should you experience an engine failure.

That Fateful Day

It was a late summer afternoon (forgive the poetic prose), and my friend and I were on a short final to Runway 5 at our home airport. As luck would have it, the airplane on the runway had missed its intended turn-off and would not be clear in time for us to land. The situation was easily handled, as we executed a go-around and began our climb. At some point between 450-500 feet above ground level (AGL), the engine, which until that moment had run perfectly, suddenly experienced a significant power loss. The onset of the engine failure was so sudden and dramatic as to leave little doubt that we would be landing sooner, rather than later.

At this point, we began a left turn back toward the runway. There was only a slight crosswind, and a left turn took us away from the right traffic pattern (and another aircraft now on downwind). We now found ourselves over the intersecting runway, and although an abbreviated downwind-base-final turn to Runway 12 was possible, we elected to continue the turn back to Runway 23. We had the altitude, and Runway 23 had the virtue of greater length and more open space adjacent to each side, including a generous overrun area that would later prove quite useful.

As we took a 45-degree cut (following our 180-degree turn) toward our modified base-to-final, we saw a Mooney departing upwind. Fortunately, we made visual contact, and it was no factor as we began our final turn toward the runway. We landed with less than a third of the runway remaining. Through normal braking, we were able to slow down to approximately 25-30 knots before departing the runway end. The overrun area provided an obstruction-free field for us to complete our landing roll. No metal was bent, and nobody was hurt. As engine failures go, the event proved rather benign. We later found the culprit to be a piece of insulation that came loose from the air box and found its way into the carburetor.

Lessons Learned

Although I would like to claim cunning and skill, the fact is success resulted as much from good fortune as superior airmanship. The weather conditions were beautiful with good visibility and ceiling and very little wind or turbulence. We were also fortunate to have enough altitude to provide us with several potentially life-saving options. Combine these with a lack of other air traffic, the engine’s mode of failure (no thrown rods, no oil on the wind screen), and the runway length and overrun area, and clearly the deck was stacked in our favor. This point was not lost on me as I began analyzing the emergency and each of the events that followed. As a result, I was able to draw several conclusions.

First, the addition of a second pilot may be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you manage your resources. Although I was pilot in command (that was determined before the flight), my friend (also a rated pilot) was flying the aircraft at the time of the incident. While the temptation to assume control was great, his management of the situation warranted no such change. For me to take over at that time would have only made a bad situation worse. Instead, I undertook the role of monitor, keeping a close eye on the airspeed indicator and turn coordinator, while watching out for traffic and managing other cockpit duties. This left the other pilot with only one responsibility—to fly the airplane.

If there are two rated pilots on board, it is imperative that each knows his or her role in the event of an emergency. Perhaps the pilot conducting the take off is not the best person to fly the airplane should an engine fail at lower altitudes. Two hundred feet AGL is the worst moment to have such a debate, and, in an engine out scenario where time is precious, you cannot waste it discussing who will fly the airplane. Determine when; if, and how control of the aircraft will be transferred before take off.

If you are not the one flying the airplane, there are several things you can do to help facilitate a safe outcome. First, help in locating a suitable landing site. Next, watch for traffic and make radio calls as time allows. Also, help the pilot flying by calling out airspeeds and watching the turn coordinator. If necessary, remind the pilot flying to keep the ball centered. Finally, since you are not flying the airplane, you are free to start securing the aircraft once committed to a landing (fuel and electrical systems- off, door- ajar, etc.).

A second point worth mentioning, the desire to do no harm to the aircraft is far more intense than you might imagine. Do not let this dictate your actions. In retrospect, I was amazed that during the event, which lasted less than a minute, I could not recall any thought being given to my own peril. However, I vividly remember how much I wanted to avoid damaging the airplane. While your fate and that of the aircraft’s are very much intertwined, just remember a crumpled landing gear or bent propeller is a small price to pay for minimizing the risk of personal injury.

Next, for most general aviation (GA) pilots, 80-90% (or more) of their flying is done from the same four or five airports. Given this, spend some time surveying the terrain around these airports from the air. For each runway end, locate the open spaces that may serve as potential off-airport landing sites. For unfamiliar airports, you may note such things during your arrival (as workload and conditions permits). Calculate where you can land and give some thought to your arrival. Armed with this information, you can have a mental strategy in place should a problem occur.

To that end, you should review this strategy before every departure. Most multi-engine pilots are taught to conduct pre-departure briefings in case of an emergency, but this is often not the case for those flying singles. The goal is to be “spring loaded” to execute your plan should it become necessary. Keep in mind you’re planning for a worst-case scenario, and a dent-free airplane is not the goal—walking away from the airplane is. When developing a plan, remember to consider factors such as weather (density altitude, wind, etc.), runway length, airport environment, and of course the aircraft. They all impact your strategy.

Finally, the airspace below 500 feet AGL is no place to trouble shoot engine difficulties. If everything was working a minute ago while you were on the ground, there is probably little you can do to remedy the problem once you’ve departed. You may have time to engage the auxiliary fuel pump and perhaps switch fuel tanks, but that’s likely to be it. Time and effort committed to any other actions is potentially dangerous and should probably be avoided. Instead, focus your energies on flying the aircraft and preparing for the inevitable landing.

Other Considerations

To turn back or not to turn back—there are many variables (wind speed and direction, airport configuration, runway length, air and ground traffic, the airplane being flown, etc.) that will influence your answer, but again, time will not be on your side in an emergency. Should disaster strike below 500 feet AGL, a turn back to the runway is likely ill advised. However, you may have a perpendicular runway, taxiway, or open field that requires only a 90 degree turn to reach it. If this is part of your prearranged escape plan, make certain to include it in your pre-departure check. Knowing if other traffic is on such movement areas could prove extremely important if called upon to put your plan into practice. Above 500 feet (again, this is not a magic number), you may be able to turn back under the right set of circumstances. Just remember, it’s better to make a controlled landing into a small space than an uncontrolled crash into an open field—or anywhere else for that matter.

Another potentially difficult situation comes with a partial versus a complete engine failure. If the power loss is complete and/or the failure is catastrophic, it is much easier to mentally commit to an emergency landing. On the other hand, if the engine is making at least some power, the temptation is to press on and attempt a normal landing. Of course, the advantage of a partial engine failure is the remaining power may provide options that might otherwise not exist. However, this may compel you to abandon an advantageous landing site in favor of something better, like a runway. Unfortunately, partial engine failures have a tendency to become complete engine failures. While no pilot wants his or her flight to end somewhere other than an airport, the open field or highway median rejected one minute may prove better than the crowded parking lot or apartment complex facing you the next.

So what should you do? If the only option(s) available to you are unfavorable, meaning that in your judgment serious injury or loss of life is inevitable, use whatever power you may have to find a more suitable landing site. However, if you have a “sure thing” and you feel you can land and walk away, by all means take it. Don’t think about how you’ll explain your actions to the flight school or insurance company, and in particular, don’t waste time worrying about the FAA’s response. You have both the authority and responsibility to deviate from the regulations to the extent required to address the emergency. Contrary to popular opinion, the FAA has no process in place that’s worth dying to avoid. If you can say in all good conscience “I was losing power and landing here afforded my passengers and I the best chance of survival while minimizing the threat to persons on the ground,” how can anyone second-guess that?

The Bottom Line

Every flight, at its most basic level, is an exercise in risk management. Anything you can do to identify and mitigate those risks improves your chances of successfully managing an emergency, particularly the loss of an engine during take off. While a little luck will go a long way, the more you plan, the less good fortune you’ll need.

In a scenario such as the one I’ve described, your goal is to minimize the time spent in what I like to call “No man’s land.” That is, the period of time where you have no suitable or definitive location to land in the event of an engine failure. With proper planning, you may be able to reduce that time down to zero. In other cases, you may find the time spent in no man’s land is uncomfortably long—20 or 30 seconds.

For example, take a Cessna 172 departing a 7,000-foot strip on a typical spring day. Given the take-off and landing performance of this aircraft, coupled with the runway length, plus any runway safety areas, you may determine that following an engine failure you can land straight ahead from a height of 200 feet AGL. In your pre-departure briefing, you could say, “Engine failure on the runway—power to idle and brake while maintaining directional control. Engine failure below 200 feet—power to idle, pitch for the recommended glide speed, land the airplane and brake as appropriate.” You may have determined that an open farm field south of the airport would make a suitable landing site. If you calculate it is possible to reach that field once you are above 200 feet AGL, you may now have an escape plan that encompasses your flight from takeoff roll to 500 feet AGL.

From that point forward, you may choose the field, a turn back to the runway, or fly a normal pattern, whichever is most appropriate. Since my engine-out episode, now at every 100 feet, I call out (verbally or mentally) where I’m going if the engine quits. I do this until reaching an altitude at which I figure a reasonably normally pattern may be flown in an emergency. I find this helps to maximize my state of mental preparedness, and at any given time, I know exactly where I’m going should the engine fail. I may not always like my options, but I know what they are. As a result, no time will be wasted.

This brings me to my final point. The FAA uses four seconds as the period of time required to react in an emergency. While this is not a great deal of time, it is long enough for airspeed to erode, altitude to be lost, and an excessive rate of descent to be established. Four seconds is enough to glide another 300-400 feet, open a door, switch fuel tanks, or turn several degrees. Given this, your actions must be immediate and precise. As a wise instructor once told me, “Move with deliberate speed, and avoid panic speed at all costs.” To that I would add, there’s no substitute for thorough preflight planning.

Editor’s Note: Pilots should review the takeoff and emergency procedures for their aircraft before each flight as part of their takeoff planning.

Michael W. Brown is an Aviation Safety Analyst in Flight Standards Service’s General Aviation and Commercial Division