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Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our Summer Writing Challenge. We asked young pilots (16-24) to share their stories about learning to fly, and we’ve heard from several already. If you or a young pilot you know has a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

It wasn’t long after I got my pilot’s license that I encountered my first emergency landing. It was a day I will never forget. I was scheduled for a ground lesson at 8 o’clock that morning. My instructor, who is also a great friend of mine, was going to teach me on how to fly a CJ-6 Nanchang, a high performance complex aircraft. When I arrived at the airport, I was greeted by the sight of my instructor removing the 33-foot, 6-inch wingspan aircraft out of his hangar.

Michael DeBerry

Strapping into the CJ-6 Nanching for a checkout, Michael DeBerry didn’t expect to use emergency procedures.

As it sat on the ramp, the sun’s rays hit the bird at just the right angle, illuminating its beautiful royal blue exterior. We began the ground lesson on what seemed to remind me of my PPT (private pilot training) days. My instructor was discussing what makes an aircraft a high performance and complex aircraft.

As I sat and took notes, I couldn’t help but think I was going to be flying something that was aerobatic and faster than a Cessna 172SP. He continued to talk about variations in wing design and how it affects aircraft performance. As a proud veteran of the United States military, he explained to me how he had flown F-18s and was able to relate how the wings’ structure made that magnificent change in aerodynamics.

Next, we discussed the importance of flaps and how they increase the angle of attack without increasing airspeed. For this particular aircraft, the flap lever didn’t have a 10, 20, 30, or even a 45 degree position—it only had one position which was flaps down. About 30 to 45 minutes into my ground instruction, we took a brief break to walk around the aircraft and complete the preflight checklist. As we walked, he discussed some key features of the plane, highlighting unique aspects of the Chinese aircraft. Once our review was complete, it was time to get airborne.

I remember climbing eagerly up into the back seat of the two-seater and fastening the safety straps. When I gave him the thumbs up, he instructed me to turn the magnetos to the “both” position. Once the starter was engaged, the aircraft came to life. The sound of the engine is still fresh in my mind. As we taxied to the run-up area, I couldn’t help but wonder how Hank was taxiing.

I was used to flying airplanes that used rudders and brakes located on the top of the rudder pedals, but this was not the case for this aircraft. To operate the brakes, you had to pull a lever located on the joystick. As we pulled out of the run up area, I remember closing my canopy as if I was closing the sunroof to a sports car. The weather was perfect and the winds were favoring Runway 25 for our departure. As we stated our intentions and lined up with Runway 25, Hank engaged the throttle and we took off.

As the wheels left the runway, I knew I was back home. We started the lesson by entering into a stall which went off without a hitch. Then the fun part was next–the aerobatics. We flipped the aircraft in and out of loops with speed and grace. It was almost as if the Nanchang were dancing in the clouds.

Once we landed, it was time to switch seats. Now it was my turn to repeat all the maneuvers that my instructor had just performed. As we ascended from Herlong, we headed toward the second practice field just southeast of Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Just as we reached 1,000 feet, trouble began to brew. The engine began to sputter and the fuel pressure began to drop.

It became immediately apparent to us that we needed to act quickly. We contacted the Navy Jax Tower to alert them to our engine troubles and declared an emergency. We were coming in hot on Runway 10. Initially the tower personnel instructed us to set up for Runway 28 as that was the active runway. However, we had already decided that Runway 10 was our best option as it was the closest runway. Our approach was slightly high, so we put our flaps down to increase drag and added in a forward slip to get us down quicker. As our airspeed began to bleed off, we were inches above the runway.

Michael DeBerry with CJ-6

Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

The plane touched down and we were greeted by naval security. Once we got out of the plane, they shook our hands and stated they were glad we made it down safe. I remember having to give my pilot’s license and my driver’s license to the base security to fill out a report. After things started to settle down, I called my Dad’s cell phone to let him know what had happened and that we needed a ride back to Herlong–but my mom answered instead.

I knew my mother would be extremely worried if I told her what happened, so I asked to speak to my Dad. I told him what happened and he and my grandfather came to the naval base to pick us up. While Hank and I waited to be picked up, we contemplated what could have been the cause of our loss of power. My instructor suspected that the fuel pump had gone bad, causing the engine to fail. This was later confirmed by his mechanic after repairing the plane.

As a pilot, you really learn what you are made of in an emergency situation. That was the first engine failure Hank and I had encountered. Looking back at all the events that took place, we were able to stay calm and get the aircraft safely to the ground without any injury and were thankful for our excellent training. The moral is don’t waste too much time analyzing the problem; in our case the airplane was talking to us loud and clear that something was not right.

We had to promptly make a decision and aggressively get the aircraft on the ground since we were losing power. It is important to remember that most flight emergencies end once you are on the ground. I also learned to not let air traffic control talk you into something that is not in your best interest during an emergency. Remember that altitude is your friend and that making sure you have the runway made before slipping is key.

When you are assured of the runway, be confident in how to do a forward slip and aggressively do it in a controlled manner when necessary. Most pilots do not practice slipping but in many cases during unplanned/forced landings the pilot finds himself high and fast and overshoots as a result.

Michael DeBerry
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12 replies
  1. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    Many pilots fly thousands of hours without ever experiencing a loss of power emergency, and so it’s easy to become complacent: “It won’t happen to me.” You found out that that’s not true.

    I’ve had two of them, the first, which happened in solid IMC, caused by impact icing blocking the air intake of a 231 Mooney, which was resolved after losing some 1300′ of altitude by (finally!) pulling the alternate air control knob. The second, which happened at about 1000′ AGL, was a thrown rod in the engine of my P172D, which led to a successful landing in a field.

    The moral is be prepared, and the only way to be prepared is to practice, practice, practice from the very beginning of training so that proper responses are ingrained. Do it often in training, and it becomes automatic when it happens for real.

    Good job! And good tale.

    • Michael DeBerry
      Michael DeBerry says:

      Thanks and glad to see that you made it through. Hope those were your last two.

      —Keep flying!!

  2. Hugh
    Hugh says:

    Great story, I hung an exhaust valve on number 4 cylinder 5 miles out from Hagerstown, MD. It blew out the side of the exhaust pipe which blew hot air into the cowl overheating the engine and causing low oil pressure. Had just enough power/time to slowly turn around, maintain altitude until over Interstate 81 and with runway 9 made I landed. Surrounded by fire trucks that dwarfed my 1946 Ercoupe. Ordered parts, rented car, went home, drove back with parts a week later, installed parts, adjusted oil pressure and flew home to Pickens, SC without incident. Training kicked in; wish I had a recording, the (evidently) new Controller was far more excited then I was. I remember thinking this engine is going to be toast if I don’t just land in a field; then I thought there are plenty of fields on the way back to the airport why not head that way and see what happens. At 80 MPH I’ll be there in less then 5 minutes and if I toast the engine; well, I’ll be alive and can buy another one.

    • Michael DeBerry
      Michael DeBerry says:

      Glad you made it down safe and didn’t let fear overtake you. Thanks as well Tionya I greatly appreciate it.

  3. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Thank you, Mr. DeBerry. Excellent article, and brought back memories of my first flight in a C-150, at Herlong, many, many years ago. A navy AM-1 was the instructor, and we didn’t have any problems. But, later, and much farther north, continuing my flight lessons, after a long lapse, the training did resurface, as the C-150 I was flying decided it was time for the engine to stop, at 3,000 AGL, and about four miles from the airport. Luckily for me, the instructor with me, (and the owner of the Cessna,) kept his cool, as did I, and I managed to make the nicest landing I’d ever made, right on the numbers, at the airport we took off from about an hour earlier. As both instructors, years apart, told me, “Fly the plane, until you are back on the ground.”

    • Michael DeBerry
      Michael DeBerry says:

      Thanks, I greatly appreciate it. Glad to hear that you made it through safely. In events like that I always try to make it a learning tool because one day it may save someone.

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