I was always of two minds about forced landings after a power failure. One, if I thought the engine was going to quit I wouldn’t go flying. Two, I knew that engines did quit so I had best not be surprised if one did, and had best have a plan for what comes next.
I always tried to minimize the chance of an engine failure. That meant spending copious amounts of money on maintenance and being acutely aware of what is going on with the power. For example, on every takeoff I monitored all power parameters with special attention to the EGT readings and when takeoff power was set I always asked myself if the engine sounded perfect. If it didn’t I would have changed the plan right then.
After takeoff I kept a running tab on all readings as well as the projected fuel on board after landing. If that value dropped below one hour at normal cruise power, I would stop and buy fuel. I had an experienced pilot with me one day when I made such a fuel stop and he couldn’t believe that I made the stop when the projected reserve dropped to 58 minutes. To me, flying was always about drawing lines in the sky and not crossing those lines.
Fuel is not something that any pilot should allow to become part of the risk of flying. Running out of fuel is purely dumb, stupid, idiotic, and there is no excuse for it. I addressed this with my one-hour rule. Even a mechanical problem that causes an increase in fuel burn shouldn’t result in a fuel shortage if the pilot is paying attention to everything.
Fuel system mismanagement also leads to forced landings and this is directly related to proper understanding and operation of the airplane. All a pilot has to do is be aware of any required fuel management and make that part of the normal operating procedure.
Despite taking all precautions I would still entertain those “what if” thoughts as I flew along. Sometimes they were disquieting like when flying at night in bumpy clouds over the eastern mountains. There still had to be a plan in case the power failed. Fly parallel to the ridges, use the radar or terrain depiction to identify a valley for an arrival, arrange for a minimum speed touchdown, and use any available lighting for last minute small heading adjustments. Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Confession is supposed to be good for the soul, so here goes. On occasion I would find myself so engrossed in something, usually challenging weather, that I would realize I hadn’t been monitoring other things like the power. I thought about this when reading Mort Mason’s post about scud running. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was thinking about how he would handle an engine failure while he was flying formation with another airplane and dodging clouds and boulders in the wilds of Alaska.
To guard against preoccupation with strong challenges I tried to develop a system of prodding the old brain every few minutes to rotate attention through other important things. Did that help? I’m not sure but it certainly didn’t hurt.
The nature of forced landings prompted me to do a lot of research on the subject a while back, to try to determine how much risk is really there. Certainly an off-airport forced landing would be inconvenient, and you would probably get your shoes muddy, but where in the acceptable range does the true risk to life come out?
If you want real numbers on this, there aren’t any and it is likely there never will be. That’s because the NTSB’s definition of a reportable accident does not include the failure of one engine (even if it is the only engine) and does require that there be serious injury to people or substantial damage to the airplane for it to be classified as an accident. You can look up the rule (Part 830) for the details but the people can be pretty beat up and the airplane pretty bent up before the event reaches the level of a reportable accident.
When you look at FAA preliminary accident information as opposed to NTSB reports, less than half the forced landings in the FAA files become an NTSB investigation so they are not part of any statistical picture. Then, FAA attention comes to the matter only if the incident is called in by local law enforcement, air traffic control or anyone who becomes aware of an airplane parked in an unusual place and makes a call.
The next question is how many of the actual forced landings come to the attention of the FAA? My wild guess would about half because if the forced landing is a non-event then nobody is likely to notify the FAA that anything happened.
So what is the risk to life? If all the numbers are stirred around and simmered for a while, it appears that about five percent of the engine-failure related forced landings in single-engine airplanes are fatal. If there is any error in that number, I would say it is likely on the low side but probably not by too much.
The good news is that you have a 95-percent chance of surviving such an event. That sounds pretty good but would not be an acceptable risk in any other endeavor so the best policy is to try to keep those engines running.
Which brings good news: the risk is not there at all as long as the engine runs. My personal experience during over 20,000 hours and 57 years shows only a couple of complete power failures and they were quite early in my flying. I would hasten to add that later on I would not have flown those airplanes on a bet. They were trouble looking for a place to happen.
My current interest in the subject was sparked by what seemed to me to be an unusual number of media reports about accidents related to engine failures. I do think that a better picture of what is going on here might actually be found by typing in “airplane crash” on any news site. I know that I have read about events there that never made the FAA or NTSB sites. I also saw a Facebook post by my friend Pete Bedell that covered what might have been the ultimate forced landing location. It involved an Aeronca Champ, flying over the Hudson River next to Manhattan. When the engine quit, the choice was between landing in the icy river and landing on the George Washington Bridge. The latter was chosen and the two occupants walked away.
That was many years ago and when looking at the picture of the slightly rumpled Champ on the roadway about in the middle of the bridge my only thought was, “How did he do that?”
I have research that I did on the Bonanza 36 accident record of about twenty years ago and I reviewed it and compared what happened then with now to see if there might be an increase in power problems in an aging fleet of these airplanes. Both studies, then and now, covered three year periods and about a million flying hours with, if anything, fewer hours likely in the current period.
It is no secret that when there is less flying there are less accidents. There were 19 fatal accidents in the old picture, when there was probably more flying, and 13 in the new. Total accidents were close.
Also close were the total accidents related to power problems, about 40-percent in both time periods.
In the older days there was not a single fatal accident related to a mechanical failure of the engine. There was one in the later period. There were three instances of fuel starvation leading to a fatal accident back when and but one in the more recent period.
One thing that puts an asterisk by the Bonanza 36 record is our total lack of knowledge about how much they are flying. I think it is a safe bet that this fleet of airplanes is not flying as many hours as it was 25 years ago. FlightAware shows a declining presence in the IFR system even though it seems active relative to like airplanes, especially the Cessna 210 which seems to be almost vanishing. The steady decline in avgas sales also suggests that piston airplane flying is down, perhaps sharply.
After poring over all this my conclusion is that the mechanical reliability of Bonanza 36s is not cratering with time, at least so far. The reason I picked this airplane to look at is that even the oldest are relatively high-value airplanes and as a result are more likely to be well-maintained.
Regarding aircraft value, I think there is probably a direct safety relationship between the value of an airplane and the cost of a remanufactured or top-quality engine overhaul. Certainly if the total airplane’s value isn’t up to what an engine costs, even after the money is spent on the engine, an owner if likely to look at cheaper alternatives if he wants to keep flying the airplane.
That problem is exacerbated with twins where two engines are involved. There aren’t many old twins around that are even close in value to the price of a pair of top quality engine/prop overhauls.
Some forced landings are not related to a power failure. These are often called precautionary landings because while the airplane will still fly, something is screwed up and the pilot decides he’d rather be on the ramp scratching his head and trying to figure out what is wrong than doing just that while flying. The big and quite real risk here comes when good flying technique goes by the wayside during a hasty and poorly planned arrival. A burst of brilliance and fancy footwork can be as important here as after a total power failure.
I am going to tell you a true story that relates to this this.
A young pilot was to fly his boss to another city where he was to make a speech. When he picked the boss up in a car to go to the airport, he laid the garment bag containing the tuxedo in the trunk. Then, for some unknown reason, he dropped the car’s keys in the trunk and shut it.
They were already close on time and were even closer by the time the trunk was pried open to retrieve the tux and the keys. So there was pressure to get going when they reached the airport.
The garment bag was carefully placed in the nose baggage and they took off. I bet you have already guessed what happened next. The nose baggage door had not been properly latched, it came open, and the tux was sucked out and fed through one of the propellers.
Despite all the distractions the pilot carefully returned to the airport and made a normal landing. He went in search of a new job while his boss was provided another airplane and pilot and arrived late to deliver his speech in a rented tux.
Despite his original lapse and failure to properly preflight the airplane, I thought the pilot deserved an attaboy for good flying after the baggage door came open. The inadvertent opening of cabin and baggage doors has led to a lot of fatal accidents and these are usually related to a hasty and poorly planned return during which a low-speed loss of control occurs.
Most airplanes will fly okay after a cabin or baggage door pops open. There will be vibration and if it is a cabin door there will be a lot of noise and loose objects might be sucked out. Most doors will open a few inches and the airplane will yaw in the direction of the door that is ajar. When the Piper Apache first came out, several pilots mistook the yaw as an indication that the engine on that side had failed. I instructed a bit in Apaches at the time and popping a door was part of every check out.
Some airplanes become hard to handle and performance suffers greatly if a cabin door comes open. Many years ago this was recognized as a substantial problem in Aerostar twins and a door ajar light was mandated. More recently, the cabin door of a Citation XLS came open after takeoff and the performance and handling was marginalized so much that the crew reported that they couldn’t climb and had their hands full. They landed safely.
All a pilot has to do to avoid the risk in this type forced landing is maintain doors properly and personally see that everything is buttoned up tight before takeoff and make sure passengers know what is not to be touched. If a door does come open then the requirement is to perform a methodical and unrushed return for a landing to set everything straight. In most airplanes it is not really possible to close a door in flight though in a few cases a procedure has been outlined in the POH.
Precautionary landings for other reasons might also be considered a modified form of forced landings with the circumstances defining how forced the landing really was.
The Cessna P210 I flew for almost 9,000 hours and 28 years had some bad days and I made a lot of unscheduled landings to go in search of mechanical help.
Landing because of a charging system failure was not a big deal because I headed for the nearest suitable airport as soon as the failure occurred. There was one exception here. One alternator failure was accompanied by electrical noises and a little acrid smoke in the cockpit. I got it on the ground pretty quickly that time.
Some vacuum failures were non-events but the ones that occurred when flying in clouds were always good for expensive thrills. I had a few magneto failures resulting in a rough enough engine to send me scurrying for a runway, preserving as much altitude as possible for as long as possible should roughness turn to quiet.
The key to all the precautionary landings in that airplane was a calm and methodical approach to making and executing a plan.
I was one of the original doubters about the airframe parachute in Cirrus airplanes. Over the years I doubted less but a short while ago I watched a video that turned me into a true believer.
Almost everyone has seen the Coast Guard video of the Cirrus splashing down under its parachute after a fuel problem on a flight from the mainland to Hawaii.
What hasn’t been widely seen is the video that the pilot took on his way to the sea under the chute. It is sort of the ultimate selfie of a pilot who kept his cool. He had the cabin door open on the way down and at one point he looked straight up, through the door opening, at the beautiful canopy that was lowering the airplane. I looked at that and thought hotdamn, if I got a do-over I would want one of those.
This pilot’s happy ending had another element that I want to mention. The Coast Guard sent a fixed-wing airplane out in response to the distress call. They did not have any rescue resources in the area so the Coast Guard contacted a nearby cruise ship and asked if they would help. The answer was affirmative, the Cirrus was directed to the vicinity of the cruise ship before the engine failed, and the pilot had not been in his raft long before a motorized lifeboat from the cruise ship picked him up. The Coast Guard video, grainy as it was, showed no problem but what looked like a little plumber’s butt as the pilot was hoisted into the lifeboat.
I decided something else when looking at that video. If ever I take a cruise, it will be on the Holland America Line. That captain stopped his big ship full of paying passengers to help one our fellow airmen.
Perhaps forced landing risk should be contemplated in two stages. What’s the risk of having a forced landing (a little) and what is the risk if I do have a forced landing (a little more)? There are things that can be done to mitigate those risks but if worse comes to worse and you do a nice bit of flying you might get to meet the farmer’s daughter or to complete your journey on a cruise ship. Or, you might get your shoes muddy.