When a practice emergency becomes the real thing

After completing all the prerequisites for my private pilot checkride and with the checkride scheduled with the local designated examiner, my day was fast approaching. I spent some time in the days leading up to the much-anticipated checkride practicing everything to be sure I had it all down perfectly – and I was sure that I did. Still, I wanted a second opinion, so on the eve of my checkride, I grabbed my CFI and the airplane I trained in and we headed out for a pre-checkride “checkride.”

The airplane was a Grumman Cheetah, a 150-horsepower low-wing with a sliding canopy and castering nose gear. I had done my early primary training and soloed in a Cessna 152. Unsatisfied with the pace of my training, I sought out another CFI and on the recommendation of a friend, found “Bob” and the Cheetah at another airport in the area. The airplane was owned by the same guy who owned the pilot shop in the terminal, and Bob provided flight instruction for their renters.

Bob was a good instructor and moved me right along in the training process. In less than a month, I went from just-soloed to checkride-ready. I also liked the low-wing platform provided by the Cheetah, although the castering nosewheel and steering solely by differential braking took some getting used to. As Bob and I took to the sky for one last instructional flight before The Big Day™, I was comfortable with the airplane and confident that I was ready.

Grumman Cheetah
A Cheetah is a fine airplane, but it’s no bushplane.

Bob put me through everything in the PPL flight standards list – slow flight, stalls, short/soft field takeoffs/landings, ground reference maneuvers, unusual attitude recovery and more. And as we headed back to our home field, above the farmland of north central Texas, Bob retarded the throttle and said, “You’ve just lost your engine.”

I was ready, having done this a dozen times before. As I was slowing to best glide airspeed, I located a likely landing spot, which was what looked like a hardpacked dirt field a couple of thousand feet long and running north and south, which favored that day’s northerly wind. Once I had the field picked out, it was just a matter of managing altitude and airspeed and flying a “pattern” that would put me over the fence headed in the right direction and just a few feet above the ground.

Everything looked perfect – too perfect as it turned out. I kept expecting Bob to advance the throttle (or tell me to) so we could fly out of there, but instead we kept getting lower, flying a final approach to the off-airport landing spot. As we got within maybe 100 feet of the ground, Bob said, “I’ve got the airplane,” and I responded, “Your airplane,” and took my hands and feet off the controls. I couldn’t quite believe it when Bob, instead of applying power and initiating the go-around, started a landing flare!

The next thing I knew, the wheels were in the dirt and we were bouncing along at 60 knots and slowing. Bob gave it full throttle, but we continued to decelerate, and it wasn’t long before we were at a dead stop right in the middle of that dirt field with the engine making full power. Clearly, we weren’t going anywhere. So we shut down the engine, slid the canopy open and climbed out to get a look at the situation.

The issue was immediately apparent. What looked like a hard-packed dry dirt field from the air was actually a field that had been recently plowed. As we walked around, we sank to our ankles in the soft dirt, and the landing gear on the Cheetah had sunk to the top of the wheel pants.

Looking around, I found a grassy area on the west side of the field and walked over to it. I found that the ground in the grassy area was firm and a lot smoother than the adjacent plowed field. If we could just get the Cheetah over onto that grass, we’d have a chance.

I showed Bob what I had found, and he agreed. He suggested that if one of us would get in the plane, start the engine and run it up to full power while the other pulled on first one wingtip and then the other, we could maybe “walk” the plane out of the soft dirt and onto the grass, which was probably 50 feet away.

So we took turns over the next few minutes, Bob in the plane and me pulling one wingtip around, running around the tail to the other side and then pulling the other wingtip around. It didn’t take long before the plane was on the grass and Bob was able to taxi it to the south end of the grassy area, which was about a third of the way down the length of the field.

Dirt field
That dirt field may not be hard packed…

We looked the plane over really well, especially the prop, flaps and landing gear, and found nothing of concern. We talked about the situation and made the decision that given the softness and shortness of the field, a successful takeoff would be much easier with just one of us on board. As the student, naturally it was I that would stay behind. Bob would circle the area and figure out exactly where we were so that he could come back and pick me up in the car later. There was a farmhouse within sight, and the plan was for me to walk there, use the phone if there was anyone home, and wait for my ride.

I crossed the barbed-wire fence, slogged through a deep barrow ditch and got up on a tractor road (what in Texas they call a “two-track”), then watched as Bob and the Cheetah gave their best short/soft-field effort. The mains cleared the fence by five or six feet and I took my first easy breath in the last hour as I listened to the Cheetah’s engine noise fade into the distance.

In the silence of that Texas farmland, I started walking toward the farmhouse, which was probably half a mile away. I was hoping that it was actually occupied and that the occupant had a phone – this was long before the cellphone days, so my only hope of contacting Bob with an address or directions, assuming he couldn’t figure it out from the air, was by landline.

As I walked, I noticed the sound of the Cheetah’s engine getting louder, and I started scanning the sky, figuring it was just Bob circling the area for landmarks. I was wrong. Bob was setting up on a final approach for the two-track I was walking on! That two-track was maybe 12 or 15 feet across and there was a deep (3-4 feet) barrow ditch on either side and barbed-wire fences beyond that. The good news was that it ran straight along the section line between fields for probably a couple of miles.

I just knew that Bob couldn’t keep it on the centerline with enough precision to avoid running a wheel off into a ditch, so not wanting to be in the path of the wreckage, I got as far off the road as I could. I then watched with amazement as Bob nailed the landing and kept it dead centered on the two-track. He brought it to a stop, slid open the canopy and waved me over. An inner voice was telling me not to, but being young and trusting, I very quickly found myself strapping into the right seat.

Just before we started the takeoff roll, an old (and I mean old) pickup turned onto the two-track from in front of us, and he came to a stop maybe a hundred feet away. Bob shut down the engine and I hopped out to go talk to the driver.

It was the farmer in whose field we had landed, and he just wanted to see what was going on. I explained that we had a little trouble but all was okay now, and that we were about to take off from the two-track. I told him we would need all the room he could give us and asked him to back up as far as he could. He waved and started backing.

Strapped back into the right seat of the Cheetah, I watched the old truck back up a few hundred feet and stop. We waited a bit to see if the farmer was going to go any farther, and even motioned out the top of the canopy for him to keep going, but he was going no farther.

two track road
That’s not supposed to be a runway.

Bob fired up and again demonstrated his best soft/short-field takeoff, pulling the Cheetah into ground effect as quickly as possible. It seemed like we cleared the roof of that old truck by inches as the farmer waved us goodbye.

The flight back to our home airport took just a few minutes and the landing was uneventful. Bob taxied the plane over to the T-hangars instead of to the ramp at the terminal where it usually stayed during the day. He didn’t want the owner, who ran a business in the terminal, to see the grass and dirt sticking out of the wheel pants. As I started walking toward the parking lot, he said, “Wait! We’ve got to clean this thing up before the owner sees it!” I responded, “What’s this ‘we’ business, Kemosabe? You made this mess, you can clean it up!”

The next morning, Bob called and said that the Cheetah was grounded for an unrelated mechanical issue and that I would have to take my checkride in the Grumman Tiger. The Tiger was identical to the Cheetah but had a 180-horsepower engine. I had never flown it, and so I needed to come out to the airport early for a checkout flight. I did, and it was no problem.

The checkride was a non-event compared to what happened the previous day. I especially nailed the simulated engine-out!

I’ve never forgotten the events of that day, and some 36 years later, I still remember what I learned:

  • A field of bare dirt may very well be a plowed field. Better find another spot for an off-airport landing.
  • The landing gear on the Grumman Cheetah is a lot stronger than it looks!
  • If you see someone about to do something stupid, speak up!

I later asked Bob why he decided to land in that field. He said, “I’d never made an off-airport landing before and the field and approach looked so good I thought I’d try it.” I can’t remember that I had a response to that.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

4 Comments

  • We glider pilots prefer bare dirt – “land in the dirt, you won’t get hurt”.

    But your roll out can be really short, as in two fuselage lengths until you are sitting on the gear doors (hinges are cheap).

    Be super careful on takeoff. One instructor landed one field short out of gas and hit the fence after refueling. Not that many twenties could have persuaded the farmer to mow a strip and take down some of the fence. Or just get some plywood to go over the ditch. Worst case bringing in a flatbed will cost a couple hundred. Contrast that to several thou if you crunch the airplane.

  • LOL. At first I thought this about me, Bob, who had a similar emergency landing, but it wasn’t. Your story had a much better outcome and much more entertaining. Long story short, we ended up landing in a cow pasture due to an actual engine failure in a Piper Arrow while practicing an emergency landing. After a great approach we pushed the throttle up to go around at about 200 ft but the engine didn’t respond so we had no choice but to land. As the arrow has the override for auto gear extension we left the gear up as it was a very short field and decided that was the best option. No injuries and very little damage to the Arrow. We were close enough to the home airport to reach them on the tower frequency and a rescue was made by helicopter. The Arrow got a new prop, was stripped down to make it as light as possible and flown out the next day. The FAA came and interviewed us and gave me a quick check ride and that was the end of it. The lesson learned here was don’t pull the mixture to simulate an engine failure (Everyone did this back then) and always clear the engine on base or at at least 500 feet so you can have a chance to troubleshoot and get it running so your simulation doesn’t turn into the real thing. 40 years later and after a long and successful flying career, I remember it like it was yesterday.

    • A great story with a good ending! I’ve never had an instructor or check pilot pull the mixture on me in a single, but I’ve been on multi-engine check rides where they did that, usually with a piece of cardboard or paper between the prop controls and mixture levers so that the one in the hot seat can’t see which engine is being pulled. That never did produce a very good feeling!

  • I got my PPL at Fletcher at Hobby in a Cheetah in the days before cell phones. Absolutely love that airplane. Early in my training, I recall my instructor pulling the throttle. I just shoved it back in and started to continue. He then explained what he was doing. “Oh engine out. I wasn’t expecting that today.” I passed. Eventually.

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