14 - An interesting Forced Landing tale

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Hello again folks,

Ian Wright has just responded to my constant nagging that we should all get lots of practice at glide approaches and forced landings. Here is a little story from Joe_K34 Kansas City of the Cherokee Pilots' Association:

Well....all of the emergency training paid off today. I experienced an engine failure and was fortunate to find a grass strip before I ran out of altitude.

As I sit here contemplating what happened, a couple of things come to mind. The first and foremost is knowing my aircraft paid off in spades.... There was not time to fumble around for switches or controls. The first indication of a problem was while turning to a final approach course on a GPS approach. I was flying the approach visually, getting more comfortable with the new radios I had recently installed. A quick review of the engine gauges showed I was only getting about 2350 rpms at close to full throttle. My immediate thought was carb ice, so I pulled full carb heat.... Things got immediately...and significantly worse. I thought the engine vibration would make the plane come apart! Carb heat back in, and a reduction in throttle. I declared an emergency with the tower controller. I only had 2000 feet of altitude to work with so I began looking for places to land.. Absolutely nothing close. The roads all had telephone/electrical poles lining them, and believe it or not there was not one open field in the area (this is Kansas for heavens sake!!!). Back up with the power. The vibration and noises didn't seem to be getting worse, but the best power I could get was about 2100-2150. Full rich was worse so I started to lean and got 2150. I was 10 miles from the runway with a 30 knot head wind.. No way was this going to turn out well. At this point I saw an opening in the trees that I thought was a golf course about 5 miles ahead and slightly to the right. Then I realized the opening was actually a private grass strip next to a high-rent housing edition and golf course. I pulled a notch of flaps and tried to balance airspeed with continued loss of altitude. The hammering from up front seemed to be getting louder and I was now below 2000 rpms. The last choice I made was to continue to the golf course and/or runway, which meant flying over several homes. The other option was to put it down in a tree and rock filled field just below. I honestly don't know what made me decide to proceed, but it looked promising.

The tower called several times during this period, but I kept remembering my various instructors saying "fly the airplane" which I did. Eventually I did call about 2 miles out and told him I was heading for the grass strip and that I had an engine failure in progress.

The final mile was a blur.. My right wing clipped a large tree top which was bordering the golf course about ½ mile from the threshold. At this point I though I was going to land short, so I popped the second notch of flaps which actually seemed to make the plane rise slightly (maybe it was just the gusting 30 knot winds). There was a small row of trees/bushes that were about 20 feet high right at the threshold. The belly and wings grazed the tops of these with the stall warning light going off and not much left on the elevator. I made it!!! If it had been another 50 feet I would have plowed into the trees at the threshold..... Mixture out, master switch off and out of the cabin. Smoke was everywhere and oil was running out from the bottom side of the cowling.

In hindsight, I am embarrassed to say I never looked at the oil pressure gauge. Several people asked, but I just didn't look. This happened so fast I spent most of my time looking outside and flying by feel. I periodically checked my airspeed and RPM, but the rest was by feel. I couldn't imagine trying to make this work in a rental airplane, or something I was not completely accustomed too. My trusty little steed felt like a comfortable old shoe. Familiarity helped.

After it was clear a fire was not imminent, I climb back inside to get my handheld radio to call the tower.. He could not hear the handheld so I turned the master back on and called him with my Com. The controller asked if I needed anything. I told him maybe just some help cleaning out my shorts... A consummate smart-ass I guess. I thanked him again, turned the master off and climbed out to sit on the grass. It was about them I realized sitting down was not optional, my knees were getting wobbly.

The second thing that comes to mind is that I have a great friend that helped. After I collected myself I called Jim Bordoni (Jim@K34_Kansas City) on my cell and asked him to come and help. He got there and calmly helped assess the situation. He then gave me a ride back to my hangar to get a towbar and rope so we could pull my bird out of the middle of the runway. Just hanging out and talking while not getting excited helped me get my nerves back to a normal level.

Someone was definitely looking out for me today. I sit here feeling overwhelmingly lucky and extremely fortunate. I subscribe to the "Big Sky Theory" as it relates to a lot of aviation, but today it became clear that life is a matter of feet or inches.

This is therapy for me to spend time writing this, but the real reason I wanted to share with this group is to ask each of you to spend a little time on emergency procedures soon. No one ever expects to have an engine failure, but when it happens you need to be able to react automatically. There simply is not time to think about what to do next.

Joe

A few thoughts...

Since Joe does not say what caused his problem, but does include a couple of photos of his cowlings, with oil pouring all over them, I have a hunch that he was distracted during his pre-flight check, and forgot to screw down his oil filler cap properly. I know (from hard experience) that if you do this, your engine will pump out all its oil after an hour or so. I noticed my oil gauge flickering (because I am always glancing at it) and landed quickly, so no internal damage was done (although the aeroplane's exterior was a mess, and it took months for all the residual oil to trickle out of the airframe's seams and joints.

I suspect Joe does not include his oil gauge (or other engine instruments) in his scan, which cost him the price of a new engine, and nearly cost him his life. On the other hand, he does fly regularly and practises forced landings. As we all do... don't we?

A couple more observations: He says, "My immediate thought was carb ice, so I pulled full carb heat.... Things got immediately...and significantly worse. I thought the engine vibration would make the plane come apart! Carb heat back in, and a reduction in throttle."

If you do have carby icing, this is precisely what will happen, so don't push the carb heat knob back in as he did. Rather, leave it on full hot and pump the throttle in and out a couple of times (to try and break the ice off the throttle butterfly). The engine will run rough as guts as it ingests all that ice and water, but after thirty seconds or so (it seems like thirty lifetimes) it should start running better again. As ever, prevention (by using carby heat routinely and regularly) is better than cure.

I am surprised that Joe seems to have been unable to fly level at 2000 rpm. You can in most aeroplanes, provided you reduce speed to the minimum drag speed (this is near to the best glide speed - see your POH). Try it next time you fly; see what is the minimum power you can maintain level flight with, at your best glide speed (you do know your aeroplane's best glide speed, don't you? Why not mark it with wax pencil or felt pen or masking tape on the ASI, then you can go straight to it whenever your engine stops producing full power).

Joe pulled a notch of flap five miles away from his forced landing field. I would not have done that. Most aeroplanes make their best glide angle without flaps (whatever some Serpentine pilots will tell you). As he clipped the trees he "popped the second notch of flaps which actually seemed to make the plane rise slightly". Usually this is precisely what will happen, but we generally select flap so high above the ground that the effect is not apparent.

This is a useful trick for a do-or-die last-ditch attempt to glide over a hedge at the threshold, although the airspeed will rapidly decay and you will probably drop like a brick to a very hard landing on the other side of the hedge. I even once did it in a 737 to hop over the approach lights in our annual simulator glide approach practice. It worked.

I have also used it (twice) at the last moment on take-off to get out of a field that turned out to be too short. But, don't try this yourselves, kids, and definitely don't say I said so. Just bear it in mind for that day your life depends on a tiny bit of extra performance.

Meanwhile, get lots of gliding practice.

Bob Grimstead
SABC Safety Committee