No Damage, No Injuries

A Dead-Stick Landing at Bozeman, MT

Over the years, in my daydreams on this subject–and I do daydream about this, it is how I mentally prepare myself for the possibility–the event always ends with an exhausted sigh of relief and the words: “We’re down safe, no damage, no injuries.”

This weekend trip began on Friday, October 26th, 2001. My employer, his wife and I began our flight to Harvey, North Dakota, from Pasco, Washington.  Harvey is where all of my passengers grew up. My employer and his wife were remodeling a home there, so this was a working weekend for us.

Cessna throttle quadrant
A sticky throttle starts the accident chain.

At mid-day Saturday, my employer and I stopped work and went to the airport to refuel the plane, a Cessna 210.  Since the temperature had dropped to the teens the night before, I wanted to see if it we would have any difficulty starting the engine in the cold. No problems there.  After we were done refueling, I restarted the engine and taxied back to our parking spot. As I let go of the throttle in order to pull the mixture knob and kill the engine, the throttle rebounded forward about an inch and a half and the engine’s RPMs jumped up to about 1500. I grabbed the throttle again and pulled it back to idle, then let go of it. It moved forward again as if on springs. I wondered what might have gotten bent to cause this. And I wondered what else that could mean. I found it to be puzzling but not alarming, since it did not seem to effect the operation of the engine, except that it wouldn’t idle by itself below 1500 rpm.

Since there were no mechanics around and since this only seemed to be a minor nuisance, I decided that during Sunday’s takeoff, if I experienced anything unusual about the throttle or the engine’s full-power performance on the takeoff roll, I would abort the takeoff and we would stay another night until we could find a mechanic.

The takeoff at 11 a.m. central time on Sunday was uneventful. The engine attained maximum power and the throttle felt completely normal at the forward end of its travel. Although I still had some nagging reservations (and some guilt feelings) about departing with the undiagnosed “springy throttle” issue, I continued the takeoff roll and we started west.

I intended to follow the same route home across central Montana that we had used coming east and the flight went as expected.  For over three hours I navigated mostly by dead reckoning (I didn’t have a GPS yet) and pilotage.  Because of adverse weather, we flew low over some rather isolated grazing lands with the occasional ranch, cattle herd, water tank and missile silo for check points.

Eventually we got a solid lock on the Harlowton non-directional beacon and homed in to it on the 240-degree mag-bearing. As we approached Harlowton, I called flight service on the local remote outlet frequency, got an update on the weather, told them where I was, and that I had decided to land at Livingston to refuel.

About twenty minutes later we were circling to land on runway 4 at Livingston. The total flight time from Harvey to Livingston had been 3:38.  During this landing, every time I let go of the throttle, the manifold pressure would jump back up to 22 or 23 inches. I put the landing gear down myself, but asked my right-seat passenger to push the propeller and mixture controls forward and to extend the flaps. That bothered me. What could be doing that, I wondered, and did it portend any other dangers?

Fuel gauge low
Watch those fuel gauges, even if the throttle sticks.

At Livingston, there was no one around so we couldn’t refuel.  We decided to continue to Bozeman for fuel and lunch. As we got back into the airplane I checked my kneeboard. We had used 67 gallons of fuel in just over three and a half hours. A glance at my scribbles on the board told me that the left tank had 20 gallons remaining and the right tank had 15 gallons. So I selected the left tank for takeoff.

Approaching Bozeman Airport, we were on a straight-in course for runway 30. The tower told me to report a 3-mile final, which I did, and received my clearance to land. Within a minute of that call, I reached up to the throttle, unlocked it, and reduced power a bit to begin a steeper final descent path and to slow the plane so I could extend the flaps. I then moved my right hand to the left, flipped the landing gear switch down, and returned my hand immediately to the throttle.

At that very moment, I felt an uncommanded movement in the throttle just as the engine power fell off.  The springy throttle “something is bent in there” issue was still floating in the back of my mind, so I was immediately convinced that, somewhere, the throttle linkage had just broken and I had lost control of the engine.

I froze for just a moment, and then pushed the throttle in to see if I could add power. Nothing.  Immediately, my training took command—and it is true, your training almost completely takes over. I stabbed the microphone button on the control wheel and told the tower: “Centurion Two Bravo Delta declaring an emergency, I have just lost my engine, we will be landing short.” The tower responded with a request for fuel and souls on board.  I answered, and then focused on the job at hand.

Ahead of me was a farm field directly in line with the final approach path. But it seemed too short for my speed and altitude, and it was too uniformly brown. That implied to my mind that it had just been plowed (it had) and it would be too soft (it was). Landing there would risk flipping the airplane on its back and doing some expensive damage. The northern part of the field looked like it had some short vegetation in it. That implies a firmer footing. And it was longer. That field looked good.

I turned 45 degrees to the right and put the nose down to aim my glide path at a point about 50 to 100 feet short of where I wanted to touchdown, then I reached over to the flap handle and slapped it to full down. The timing for that action was perfect. With full flaps coming on, with their increase in drag, we were able to slow down and go down at the same time.

At the last moment on our glide down, my employer called out “Power lines!” I had seen them just at the same moment. He asked if we would be able to get over them. I said “No. We’re going under them.” That was not a conditional statement. I had decided years ago, that if power lines were ever an obstacle to an emergency landing, I would go under them. My recurring nightmare is to suddenly see wires in front of me and then find myself paralyzed with indecision, not knowing whether we should go up or down to avoid them.

Throughout the rest of the glide I remained focused on the power lines. We sailed under them and landed firmly 60 feet beyond. I was immediately relieved to feel that the soil was firm and not too bumpy. Without applying too much brake, we came to a stop in 700 feet.

As we rolled to a stop, the propeller was still turning at what looked like idle power. I reached to the mixture control, pulled it out and killed the engine. We were stopped, and we weren’t damaged. Then the tower called our N-number and asked how we were. I responded, “Tower, this is Two Bravo Delta. We are down safe, no damage, no injuries.” The tower controller responded with enthusiasm: “Bravo Zulu!” (…a Navy expression).

210 in the field
Welcome to Bozeman–the 210 safely in the field.

It took a little while, but soon Arlin Waas of Arlin’s Flying Service arrived on the scene with three of his employees. Arlin had his people tow the plane out of the field (gingerly), down the road (with the police stopping traffic for us at each end) and onto the airport property.

I told him what I had felt; about the springy throttle, and that I was sure the throttle linkage had let go. He removed the cowling and had a look. He asked me to get in the cockpit and move the throttle fully open and fully closed a number of times. He found that the throttle linkage was intact and working just fine. He did, however, find the reason for the springiness.

It turns out that another cable that is also connected to the throttle somehow seized up and got bent. This cable is connected to a box that activates the landing gear up-alarm. It is supposed to sound a horn anytime the throttle is closed and the wheels are in the up position. There was a 3-inch long Z-shaped bend in the wire, and that would account for the high idle problems.

Arlin asked me to open the throttle, prime the engine and start it. I did so, and it started, then quickly died. He then asked me to switch to the right main tank, prime and start. This time, the engine started normally, sustained itself, and I had speed control with the throttle. I was a little confused. It wasn’t the throttle linkage? Then what was that movement I felt?  What about the springiness? How did that contribute to the problem–or did it?

Arlin walked over to my door and with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye, quietly said, “You know, you can’t buy a good experience like this.” It will make you a better pilot, he implied. It all started to click in my mind. Had I really run the left tank out of fuel? But what about the engine as I rolled to a stop? Wasn’t it still running? Hadn’t I killed it with the mixture knob? The weight of it all hit me: No-o-o-o! I couldn’t have done that!! Running out of gas is something only stupid people do!

I grabbed my kneeboard and flight notes. When we were getting ready to leave Livingston, I had checked my fuel calculations. We had used 67 gallons of fuel in about three and a half hours, out of a total of 89 gallons in the mains, with another 30 gallons waiting in the tips tanks to be transferred.

At Livingston, my scribbles on the board told me that the left tank had 20 gallons remaining and the right tank had 15 gallons. So I had selected the left tank for takeoff. But, as it turns out, that wasn’t right.Those two figures for fuel remaining were written down when I last changed tanks at the 55-gallon point in the flight. Though I had recorded the final fuel burn tally on shutdown, I had failed to update the true fuel remaining in each tank after burning the last 12 gallons from the left tank during the last 35 or 40 minutes of the flight. Before landing at Livingston, I had switched to the right tank as part of the landing checklist and when I reviewed my fuel prior to takeoff, I moved the fuel selector knob from the right, back to the left. Its position, on the right tank, had been consistent with my flawed understanding of how much fuel was in each tank. I took off from Livingston assuming that I had 20 gallons in the left main tank when in fact I only had 8 gallons. Twenty minutes later the event began.

Lesson Learned? Besides the obvious: Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then the complacency of routine. The danger in complacency is that it lowers our immunity to perceiving error by seducing us into dropping the guard that is found in wary skepticism.

Too much skepticism erodes the confidence we must have in our abilities as aviators and in the predictability of the machines we fly. Mild skepticism, however, whispers that we must continue to review our previous perceptions and conclusions–and take nothing for granted.

Aviators abhor uncertainty. We “Pilots in Command” like to think we know what is happening as we fly and that we are in control of all factors.  (A dangerous conceit)  As we go, we try to update our perceptions, establishing new expectations and alternatives, and setting and resetting the boundaries between the known and the unknown.  But distractions and fixations can upset those efforts.

Conclusion?  My principal mistake that set us up for the event was to glance at my kneeboard notes while starting up at Livingston. I should have checked my notes by reviewing the math and the logic by which they were derived. Instead I took for granted what I thought I saw and did not challenge my perceptions further.

Secondly, my fixation on the “springy throttle” issue overrode what should have been a knee-jerk reaction:  When the engine lost power, the first thing I should have done was to change tanks, turn on the electric fuel pump, run the mixture forward a little and even move the throttle.  I could have had the engine back in two seconds.  But I failed to do that.  At the time I had been certain the throttle linkage had separated and fuel was not the issue.

And yes, considering how it all turned out, I couldn’t buy a good experience like this. And it will make me a better pilot.

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11 Comments

  • I’m a late blooming student and have seen many different pilots level of gathering info prior to take off. The one guy who doesn’t make me nervous damn near prefilghts every time but always dips his tanks. Now I know why. Thanks for the lesson.

    • You’re a fool. You should have never departed with a throttle problem and you should haven accurate fuel gauges and dipped tanks and followed engine out checklist.

      • Totally agree with Bill. The first big mistake was not failing to note the right amount of fuel but to start the flight with a known problem on the throttle. That was foolish indeed.

        • Sitting at home, it’s so easy to say, “you’re a fool.” Until the time you forget some “obvious” stuff and become the next fool. Everyone saying “you’re a fool” is missing the entire point of why this experience was shared with us.

          • It was foolish to leave with the throttle problem ESPECIALLY with passengers at risk. I can’t say that I would not have made the same mistakes in flight that caused the emergency landing on the grass field but you can be d*mn certain that I dip the tanks before every flight! Dip the tanks before flight = problem solved

    • Even if you do nothing else…. Dip the tanks. Single most important thing. Don’t go by what anyone else tells you is in there or what your rough calculations are. DIP THE TANKS

  • Thank you for sharing the story. There are lessons to learn from this experience for those new to flight. Glad you are around to share this one. A lesser man would not be so willing to put himself out there for others to verbally assault.

  • Thank you for sharing this experience. As an aspiring private pilot i read as many case stories as i can take in so in the event of a similar situation i’d have a better chance of staying clear headed and avoiding catastrophe. You should be proud of your willingness to share your experience for the benefit of the rest of us.
    Enjoy!
    Andrew

  • Interesting “debriefing” of your experiences regarding this incident. Well, foolish for sure, but isn’t it so easy to point fingers? I am happy and eager to learn from real world pilots sharing their experiences to make the aviation community stronger and safer! I am still a rooky pilot with ~200h and know exactly which mistakes I have already done – leaving me with more experience and a progressing learning curve. Knowledge and experience we mainly gain from our bad decisions and actions, right? Thanks for sharing. Happy landings, Volker

  • There are plenty of airline crashes that have been documented where a small problem has distracted the crew enough to miss a big problem. I have watched several Air Disasters where a warning light or autopilot clicking off have distracted them enough to let a jetliner stall in the flight levels and ride that stall distracted all the way to the ground.

  • Anyone who says you’re a fool doesn’t operate in the real, full-of-demands world. Those people who casually declare you such are most likely sunny-weekend-only pilots who don’t have to face the external pressures in aviation that you and I do on a daily basis. You were flying your employer to another destination for a specific purpose; you were under some pressure to go. If you have a mission to complete, you constantly have to make judgments about the state of each individual aspect as you go along – mechanical, chemical, environmental, psychological, physical, etc… You have to ask yourself constantly: “How are things? Do I have a problem big enough and debilitating enough to keep me from going?” Anyone, everyone can find SOMETHING questionable enough to delay or cancel any flight at any time. And ‘weekend pilots’ often will and do. But in the real world, the world of commerce, you have to make judgments; you have to understand that if you are going to complete the mission you’ll have to accept the fact that all will not be perfect. You have to think of yourself as a battlefield commander: Casualties are inevitable, but the battle can still be won… Sometimes the regulations themselves tell you immediately whether or not you’re legal to continue, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you have a grey area ahead of you which puts the call squarely on your shoulders. And that’s where experience comes in… “Have I seen this before?”, is a question that comes to mind. “Can I safely go with this problem?”, is another. You made a judgment call about a specific problem, but it was a whole other problem that bit you. You would have been okay with the first if you had calculated the second correctly in the first place. Nagging pressure from the first likely affected the second… It must have seemed incredulous to finally realize that the reason you found yourself in that field was that your engine suffered from fuel starvation – not because of a mechanical problem with a cable. If you hadn’t had to worry about the first problem the second might not have ever emerged. And in that regard, Bill and Frank are correct. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. But what they, and I, and everyone needs to remember is this: We are not machines. We think and reason with imperfect brains, and we are faced with choices, and judgments, and external pressures many times a day, everyday. And because of these ‘frailties’ we will make mistakes every darned day. I’m just glad you lived through this one to have some experience to fall back on in the future. I don’t know Bill and Frank. I make no claims or judgments concerning them. But I do know this: If you cancel flights everytime there is even a hint of imperfection somewhere you’ll never be successful as a commercial pilot. You’d better find something else to do for a living and just fly for fun on those sunny weekends.

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