Complete Engine Failure; Are You Ready?

I had a blog ready to go but this amazing emergency response should be examined; too good to ignore. Put yourself in this pilot’s position, could you respond this professionally? What elements, planning and skill, made this work so smoothly?

This is a perfect example of professional flying after a catastrophic engine failure, handled gracefully. The pilot was calm and accepted the emergency (no denial, no panic). He was also skillful, heading directly to a nearby field (none of the usual delay, indecision, or 10-mile final). Additionally, this pilot was resourceful, soliciting the controller’s help (who was also a pro) and the result was a perfect landing at a nearby alternate.

Obviously, luck played a part in this successful outcome, great weather (though filed IFR), altitude to play with, and a nearby airport. But probably good planning, – “making your own luck” – was also involved.  This means staying current on emergencies, planning the cross-country route over airports rather than over mountains, and keeping the piloting skills sharp to make this emergency look easy (notice the steady sight picture). Can you imagine the outcome here if this was solid clouds into the mountains (no ceilings)? Notice his technique of heading directly to the field and losing altitude overhead to enter a familiar abeam approach. This pilot was glider-rated (though he said it had been a few years since the recent glider experience).

Unfortunately, DPEs seldom see this reliable technique on flight tests, so CFIs are obviously not teaching it (another critical skill not in the ACS). For success with a glide, head directly overhead the field (glider pilots call this high key), and dissipate altitude in a spiral (remember those descending spirals in the commercial ACS?). Plan your descent and turns to enter a normal abeam position (low key) at the usual  1000agl. This has a calming effect and makes the “emergency” into a more familiar and predictable event. In most flight tests, nervous applicants often attempt an amazingly long final which prevents predictable sink analysis and provides no options when the glide is misjudged. A descent directly above with a standard pattern should initially be aiming for the middle of the field. This allows adjustments for altitude error by scrubbing off altitude last (with more flaps or a slip) when the field is assured.

Airshow monster Rob Holland lost his engine while flying home from a Florida airshow in his aerobatic MXS-RH. He describes his decision process and his technique landing on a closed private field in Episode 25 of “I Learned About Flying From That.” His MX descends at 3500 fpm and the (abandoned) runway was 1700′ X 25′ with Hurricane Harvey damage still littering the runway. An exciting event only Rob could pull off.

Buying some dual in a glider is great insurance for experiences like this. It is also big fun. After a few landings, events like this seem “almost normal.” Glider experience also builds maneuvering skills and sharpens awareness of the interactive effects of sink rate and wind drift. Every glider landing is a one-shot deadstick (game over, no replay) event. See Kai Gersten “Off Airport Landings” for some advanced techniques.

When an engine blows up – and this happens despite most careful maintenance – you want to be this guy, not a twisted pile of aluminum in the trees; great job! Fly safe out there and often.

Join SAFE and enjoy great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight)! Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts all required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business). #flySAFE

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

7 thoughts on “Complete Engine Failure; Are You Ready?”

  1. Nicely done. I have had to dead-stick it in a couple of times. Fortunately mine had the same ending as this one.

    I teach power-off landings in a couple of different aircraft. I teach arrival to high-key and then low-key. Most everyone is familiar with low-key, which is the point from downwind from which a “normal” power-off landing can be made. This is what most people practice. The problem is getting to that point, especially when starting away from the airport as this pilot did. This is where high-key comes in.

    High-key is the point over the airport, flying upwind, from which one can make low-key. The purpose for hitting (or not hitting) high-key is to provide feedback from which you can reliably hit low-key. If you arrive early (high) at high-key, extend upwind slightly. If you see you are not going to make high-key, start your turn to low-key early. The purpose here is feedback so you can correct your approach.

    Lastly, remember that you are probably approaching the runway with the gear and flaps retracted, with an IAS of Vg or slightly above. You are going to have WAY too much energy. If the approach looks right/normal you WILL overshoot your landing point and probably run off the end of the runway. Once you know you have the runway made from low-key, throw out the anchor (gear, flaps, slip).

    (Choosing a glide airspeed is a complete other discussion. One quick comment, if there are winds, you want to increase your glide speed. Speeds above glide speed do not hurt as much as speeds below Vg.)

    I teach this to my students starting downwind from the airport, 3nm away from the airport reference point (by GPS). The goal is to pull the power, glide to high-key, turn, make low-key, turn, then land the airplane. It usually takes several tries to get it right because every airplane is different.

    Some airplanes amaze you. Some scare you. Everyone is amazed that, in calm-wind conditions, most Mooneys can start at 3000′ AGL 3nm from the airport and hit high-key, about 1700 AGL. (Be sure to pull the prop control to full coarse pitch/low RPM.)

    I am currently working with a student who owns a Cherokee 6 300. This falls into the scary category. The Cherokee 6 is a brick. Low-key in the Cherokee 6 starts from downwind abeam the touchdown point, at about 1200′ AGL, above normal pattern altitude. If you pull the prop, turn aggressively to the numbers (45 degree bank in an oblique descending turn), you might make it from a 1000′ downwind. Maybe.

    So the points here are:

    1. Practice in the airplane that you fly.
    2. Use both high-key and low-key to adjust your approach.
    3. Practice.
    4. Practice.
    5. Practice.

    1. Yes Brian, I am a CFI in gliders and these soaring skills could transfer creating greater safety in powered operations. Just the experience (mental shock) of “no power” is valuable for every power pilot (one chance, no replay!) And yes, interesting how badly some of these planes “glide” (space shuttle?) The overhead “high key” is the essential tool for accuracy and no one teaches this. Flight test candidates seldom look close (sometimes directly over an airport when the engine “fails”) and instead usually attempt a 5 mile final to a pretty poor “field!”

  2. The engine out was certainly well managed and executed. But, he had a 6600ft runway and aimed at the runway numbers. For the average pilot when runway length allows, it would be advisable to leave some room for error and turn a closer base to aim well into the runway, as recommended by Kai Gertsen in Off Airport Landings.

    1. Yeah, I recommend that too, aim for the middle, then drag up the plane or slip to optimize when “landing assured.” Easy to Monday morning quarterback and I certainly would not criticize this performance, great job by this pilot.

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