Engine Failure – the Loudest Quiet You Will Ever Hear

So, of all of the warning horns, bells and buzzers that we have, which is the sound most likely to catch your attention immediately?  I suggest that it is the silent sound of the engine no longer running.

Pilots and students have asked, over the years, if I have ever had an engine failure.  And I always said, "No."  And this was because, in my mind, I was associating "engine failure" with "off-airport forced landing".  And I have never made an off-airport landing due to engine failure.  But after the last incident when the engine stopped running, I realized that, yes, I have had an engine stop running on a number of occasions.  Did I handle the situations correctly? I will let you decide.

My earliest flight training occurred when I was privileged to learn to fly in the Air Force T-41C over the plains of eastern Colorado.  The T-41 was a great little airplane – a Cessna 172 with a fuel-injected 250 horsepower engine.  That little guy could really climb – 500 fpm at 10,000 feet.  And none of this silly carb heat stuff to worry about.  But that nearly did me in.

Because I received sufficient dual instruction but less than the required amount of solo time, I was going to need to fly something else to get the rest of my solo time.  Fortunately, there was a standard Cessna 172 available, so I quickly checked out in that and started to crank out some serious cross-country time.  And on one those cross-country flights, about 80 miles from home, over the very empty Colorado plains, the engine began to run very rough.

 I immediately went into the "forced landing" mode that I had practiced so many time, and started circling down.  And then I thought, "I really don't want to land out here, 10 miles from the nearest building." And that is when "carb heat" came to mind.  And, just as the book predicted, as soon as I pulled that knob out, the engine ran worse for a few seconds, and then ran great.

Many years later, I found myself in the right seat of a Cessna 152 with an almost-solo student beside me.  We had already flown a dozen patterns with mixed success, and while I wasn't asleep, I wasn't at my sharpest at this point. We hit the turn-to-base point, the knobs were all pulled back, and we started to glide toward the runway.

The approach was proceeding nicely, until the student decided (correctly) that he was starting to get a bit low and added power.  Let me tell you the difference between the sound of an engine that is at idle speed and one that is windmilling.  There isn't any. And the first time the difference becomes apparent is when the student pushes the throttle forward and nothing happens.  The

 airplane just continues to sink while the student gets a very frustrated (no, panicky) expression.  I did what I always told my students to do in this situation.  First thing, ALL knobs forward – power, mixture, carb heat, prop control -  every thing.  And, if you are an instructor, you already know what I learned in that move.  The mixture knob was all the way out and the carb heat knob was already all the way in.  Lesson learned? Watch your student move those knobs.

I have had a number of fuel starvations due to mismanaged tanks.  If your flying experience is limited to Cessna 152 or 172 aircraft, you are accustomed to placing the fuel selector in "On" or "Both" and never touching it.  But other aircraft have fuel systems that are not as convenient.

The Cessna 210 that I was ferrying had the standard fuel selector for a 210 – left, right, off.  And I had a lot of 210 experience, but not much recently.  And yes, I forgot to switch the tank from left to right, and yes, the engine stopped running.  On final, about a mile from the runway. In that case pushing all controls forward had no effect, so in less time than it takes to describe it, I reached down and switched tanks and hit the electric fuel pump switch.  And heard that sweet sound of a purring engine.

My most recent experience was similar.  Again, I "knew" the fuel system, but it was not second-nature.  The Debonair that I recently checked out in had four fuel tanks, two mains and two aux.  But the fuel selector positions were "left main", "right main", "aux", and "off".  In the aux position, both aux  tanks were supposed to feed simultaneously.  But they didn't.  Due to a sticking valve, only the left aux tank would feed the engine, and

sometimes only the right aux tank would feed the engine.  But, sometimes both would.  We had been working on this problem since we purchased the plane and first discovered the situation a short time earlier, but we still had not discovered the underlying problem.

So, the smart money would have bet that a pilot should not be assuming that he had fuel available in the aux tanks. The smart money would have bet on feeding from the mains when in the traffic pattern.  And a smarter pilot would have been more aware of what tank he was drawing from.  Especially at night.

Well the short story is that on takeoff from a touch and go at night, the engine went very silent.  This time, the engine controls were already full forward, and I was about fifty feet in the air with about 1,500 feet in front of me.  I generally don't retract landing gear until I have no runway available for a forced landing, and that technique proved to be a good one  The thought of switching tanks and hitting the fuel pump did go through my mind, but at that altitude and configuration that idea was quickly replaced with, "just land and take care of the problem on the ground."  And I did, and when I checked the fuel selector I saw that I was on "Aux", and when I checked the aux tanks I found one empty and one full.  Lesson learned.

One more situation, an airplane I owned in partnership with two others, and one in which I was not present.  But the situation was enlightening.  I was CFI at the time, as was one of the partners.  But the partner flying the airplane was a low-time private pilot.

As he explained to me later over the phone, the engine started running very rough when he was about twenty miles from our home airport.  The standard suggestions had no affect.  He tried using carb heat, switching tanks, switching mag settings.  Nothing worked,   He had already turned back toward home and started a very slow climb.  And then he realized that our home airport was surrounded by high buildings, a river and a lot

additional obstacles. He decided that this was not the best location for a total engine failure if one was about to occur. So, since he was over farm land at the time, he looked for the biggest empty field that he could find.  And he planned for a touchdown in the middle using his best soft-field landing technique.

And his final comment?  "It was no big deal.  I just pretended that it was a normal landing, and planned my approach and landing accordingly."

And two days later our mechanic replaced the two cylinders with with broken valves, the sheriffs department blocked off the nearest open street, and we flew it back home.

Fly safe.



Don't Practice Until You Get It Right - Practice Until You Don't Get It Wrong

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updated August, 2020