No time for prayer: surviving catastrophic engine failure

The engine had a catastrophe. I was really blessed. I lived.

The plane had a name: Skippy. It was before Margaret and I had kids. I spent a lot of time with the airplane, and when I wasn’t with it, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and dreaming of flying.

When we bought Skippy, a 1961 Piper Colt, the fellow selling it to me seemed overcome with emotion as he handed the keys over. It seemed like he was losing a member of the family. After the sale, I could tell that even though he had another plane, it was not easy to let go.

Tri-pacer on Lake George, Alaska
Skippy, the author’s trusty Piper Colt, on Lake George, Alaska.

We had great times with Skippy. We flew it to places like McCarthy, Alaska. I had to file round robin flight plans because there was no radio coverage or phones in that area. I landed Skippy on beaches… great crosswind training, and the beaches we landed on were sloped, so I learned a few things about handling the airplane. We flew to my favorite place in the wilds near Anchorage – Lake George. It opened up a lot of Alaska to us. This plane was meeting our needs for an inexpensive flying machine.

Then one day, during an annual inspection, the IA said the Lycoming O235-C1B was rusty and not airworthy…oh my, I thought, are my flying days over? Money was a factor and I began looking for a mid-time airworthy replacement. As luck would have it, I found one locally pretty quickly and had it installed by some of the best mechanics on Merrill Field.

A Short Flight

Back in the air, I returned to flying the Colt recreationally. Anchorage is nearly surrounded by mountains and glaciers and flying among the nearby geographic wonders in any season never tires me. On Wednesday, January 22, 1992, I left Merrill Field at about 3:20 pm local time on a flight plan to the Eklutna Glacier and Lake area, returning to Merrill Field. I climbed out of Merrill Field to 3500 through the Fort Richardson area east of the Glenn Highway and then, passing Eagle River, I climbed up to 4500 feet.

On the return from this short afternoon flight (the days in January are very short as well), the aircraft appeared to be functioning normally. I had full power and the temperature was well below any temperature range which I was concerned about (but not too cool, either—that is a carb ice story for another day). I don’t recall exactly what the temp was, probably around 180 or so, maybe even a little lower as I passed Birchwood airport.

At about Eagle River, it looked like the engine was getting a little bit hot. I called Bryant Army Air Field Tower for a clearance to transition along the highway to Merrill Field. I got that and within a couple of minutes the engine got hotter and hotter.

Before the engine blew, it was making a repetitive cyclical type noise; it wasn’t high pitched, it was kind of like the sound of a card flapping on a set of bicycle spokes, going fairly rapidly, getting painfully louder and louder to the point it seemed like my headset was not muffling the noise at all as the big end of the number 2 rod broke and the piston was beaten against the crank case.

The engine let go as I was just about ready to call Bryant Tower to request direct Merrill through Elmendorf Air Force Base airspace. The temperature got real hot and went above 220. Before the engine actually blew, the temperature gauge was redlined. I advised Bryant Tower and they gave me a clearance to land on runway 18. The piston had pierced the case making a four inch hole and the windshield was covered with oil. I was just a couple of miles north of there so I basically flew direct to the runway and entered a left base and then I advised Bryant I couldn’t see because of the oil on my windshield.

Bryant had asked me if I wanted crash-fire-rescue and I advised them negative. But then after I told them that my windshield was covered with oil, another pilot (a military pilot) advised the tower to call crash-fire-rescue and they did.

Some Big Hole

Lycoming with hole in it
Not a good sight for a Lycoming engine.

Even during the engine’s clamor as I descended from 900 feet into Bryant and slipped the aircraft’s nose to the right, I noted to myself how hard it was going to be to land straight due to the lack of a reference to line up on (the uneven snow covered hummocks I glanced sideward at on approach were haphazardly covered with bushes). It would be easy to skid and flip, without something to line up on, I thought.

The clamor continued because three cylinders kept producing some power. The rod which had broken had beaten the free floating piston through the side of the crankcase, making a hole bigger than my fist.

Even though home base at Merrill Field was now only five miles distant, the deafening metal to metal cacophony of a dying motor spraying its life blood in my face provided me with all the justification I needed to land at Bryant. If there were no other safe landing point, say if I was over water, I would certainly have tried to get some more distance out of the hurting bird but we were definitely going down!

Crash-fire-rescue met me where I rolled out on one-eight. I had landed on the left side of the runway without further incident. And then tower advised me to shut the engine down and that I would get a tow. That happened around 4 pm. I was on frequency 125.0 with the tower when the fire trucks met me.

Recovery

Colt with oil on cowl
Getting a tow from the Bryant Field fire chief, with oil everywhere.

The fire chief and the tower chief participated in the recovery. The fire chief, in addition to seeing I was all right, wanted to make sure to keep the airplane from spilling oil any further on the runway or taxiway.

One of the trucks towed me over to the area where base ops made a spot for me. A private party supplied the tie down ropes.

I called Anchorage Flight Service and closed my flight plan, then spoke to the supervisor and reported the incident. Flight Service made the required notifications and report on FAA Form 8020-9. The supervisor had received my information in an empathetic fashion; I am sure she could hear the disappointment in my voice. Then I called my dad, always there for me, for a lift home from the airfield. I didn’t have to wait long.

Afterward, I had asked around about what could have caused the temp increase and there were no good answers. The engine hadn’t been “making metal.” No one could say for sure.

A friend and experienced mechanic helped tremendously by volunteering to take the wings off the airplane so we could transport Skippy off the military base by truck. A vehicle tow operator had one of the newer lift-ramp type tow trucks which we used to take it back to Merrill Field.

Hitching a Ride to Home Field

Colt on tow truck
Hitching a ride home…

In retrospect, I had these thoughts about the incident (not an “accident;” there was no damage to the airframe):

  • Know your aircraft. Never fly it if you don’t have fully informed knowledge that the aircraft is safe and airworthy… period. In my mind it was. I was informed later there may have been inter-granular corrosion which would not have been detectable by any normal means.
  • Keep your wits about you. The most disconcerting element of this event was the noise, and yet I could communicate with the Tower and had a grip on the situation. I concentrated on doing positive actions – no negative thought entered my mind, I discovered as I reviewed the movie in my brain of the event. There was no time for negatives. I never felt that I would be injured or worse, but perhaps, as Jimmy Doolittle said, “I could never be so lucky again!” There seemed to be no time for prayers either, and yet as I mentioned, I feel blessed to have lived, and cannot say that there was no divine intervention. I have flown comfortably for 22 years since the incident and I believe that you make your own luck by eliminating risks.
  • Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency. My negative response to calling out crash-fire-rescue was a reaction, and the wrong one. In the end it was obvious I was going to land at Bryant with “some big hole in the engine,” as Margaret said, so I just should have answered affirmative to the offer. Every second counts in a potentially life threatening situation.
  • Keep the airspeed up. I landed with some extra airspeed. Beats stalling out.
  • Land straight. As I passed over the threshold, I could see the runway edge out the side window. This was a gift for alignment that I gratefully accepted!
  • Treasure the first responders. It may be their job, but whether it is the controller on the radio, or the crash-fire-rescue crew, know that we in America are second to none with the caliber of the people who stand ready to assist when we have an emergency.
  • Pay it forward. Whether you think you will ever need them, value your fellow man or woman with the respect they deserve, double for those in need… some day you might need some help yourself. Margaret says that grounding Skippy opened us (me) up to what’s really important: family, and especially gave us the opportunity to focus on adopting and raising our children (becoming parents was the greatest gift we could ever receive).
  • Keep flying. I have continued to fly single-engine aircraft to this day. Exercising this great freedom and observing from the air the beauty of what God has created is an unending joy.

18 Comments

    • Thanks for taking the time to read, and your kind words! I learned a lot from instructors who prepared me for emergencies, that is a piece of the equation for aviating under difficult circumstances.

  • Well done, Marshall. I must say, that the little Lycoming kept generating any power with one piston flailing holes in the crankcase is a real testimonial to its engineers and constructors. Clearly, they did a lot of things right.

    • Thank you Hunter, for the compliment and I agree, those engineers and constructors built them right and are unsung heroes!

  • A miraculous landing and what a great story! This should go in the Alaska magazine. Some excellent tips for other pilots in the well itemized lessons learned.

  • Excellent article, Marshall. Your thoughts on the incident were right on the money. Having flown helicopters and single-engine airplanes for thirty-two years, on many occasions experiencing an in-flight emergency of my own, I can relate to every aspect of your story. Well done!

    • Thanks for your generous comments,Greg. Knowing some of your experiences and accomplishments makes me all the more appreciative of your kind words — I am a great admirer of your books: Broken Wings and Aviation Mysteries of the North! Much obliged for taking the time to read my story.

  • I have only a few hours in Piper’s Colt, but I enjoyed them all. Nice little airplane. After having flown out of Merrill, Lake Hood and Anchorage International for thirty-five years, I was able to sit with you through your entire flight.

    You appear to be a cool pilot, and I’d fly with you, something I can say about very few pilots, and all of those are Alaska pilots. The training, the country, and the overall approach to Alaska flying seems to produce some pretty good sticks. You appear to be one of them. Nice handling !!!

    • Thank you, Mort for your gracious comments; if I do ever get to fly with you it will be a privilege and a great learning experience for me just as your books have been!

  • I enjoyed the nice tour you and Skippy gave me just a little before that incident!! Very compelling and nerve-wracking experience!! I am very appreciative of the fact that Skippy waited until you were solo to blow his stack! Great job staying level headed and bringing it down in one piece!

  • Your title to this article “No time for prayer” is disgraceful to yourself and God. The title shows that you feel that you can handle any situation in your life better than God and that your creator is not welcome to intervene in your life. The first thing that anyone should do when anyone needs help is to call upon our God. He will answer a whole lot faster than you can act and the result will turn out a whole lot better than what you can do without Him. Put God first in your life and everything will go a lot smoother.

    • I have crashed twice, and was able to walk away. You have to fly the aircraft before anything else comes to mind especially in an emergency. God is not a member of the available crew management in the cockpit.
      When you are training emergencies, there is no time for praying either. The good Lord is not at the control of the aircraft, you are.
      My life is good. God appreciate what I do and does not intervene.

      • Someday you will realize that God is always in control as nothing happens in life without His permission. But by then it might be too late for you.

  • Having experienced a complete loss of power on my 220 Continental-powered biplane, and surviving a landing in a clear-cut, I have to agree with Jerry. In the approximately 2 1/2 minutes I had before impact, I had time to ask God to help me fly the aircraft, and watch over me. I landed with a peace, that although I would be injured, and the aircraft
    severely damaged, at no time did I feel I was going to die. He flies with me always.

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