Engine failure
5 min read

In the unlikely event that you encounter an emergency like the one Sullenberger was faced with, there are a few things that need to be processed immediately and without hesitation to ward off a disaster.

Let’s first ask the question: when would a pilot face such an emergency?

To answer that question, one needs to know the contextual basis of the emergency. In this case it would be loss of engine power on takeoff. And that means when the pilot has barely raised the prop and cowling above 1000 feet of altitude and the engine gives up the ghost. Why is this an emergency of an extraordinary nature that needs its own value-based attention?

Engine failure

The engine quit – now what?

Easy answer is: it is based on the limit of time and aerodynamics for the required rapid response for safe outcome. In other words, there is very little time for the pilot to rummage through any procedure, in print or in digital format. In this case it is all about Emergency Procedural Memory.

Emergency Procedural Memory

There are seven components to this memorized ritual:

  1. Amplify lift. With the engine at rest and zero thrust attitude of the lazy rod-thrown-or-fuel-contaminated-or-fuel-starved-or-exhausted-engine can only be amplified by flying the aircraft at the aircraft-weight-based glide speed (max distance).
  2. Reduce drag. Similar to a twin engine where in case of loss of single-engine thrust, one needs to reduce drag by gear up (complex aircraft) and flaps up. By the way, full flaps induce more parasitic drag than the gear in flight. And if you have a constant speed propeller …PULL THE PROP all the way back to reduce further drag.
  3. Mixture: Full rich.
  4. Fuel on the fullest tank.
  5. Boost Pump ON (in case the engine driven pump has seen the ghost).
  6. Pull Alternate Air in case of icing or obstruction at the intake.
  7. Check both magnetos.

However, at cruise altitude, you have ample time to resolve the engine anomaly. If still unsuccessful in starting the engine, you need to set the aircraft down, with altitude and airspeed as your friendly angels.

So, getting back to the emergeny situation: Under the 0 to 1000 feet of gained altitude, the only option is to land straight ahead or perhaps shallow bank left and right to find a spot where there are no orphanages and school busses. Shallow banks mean less than 20 degrees. It is also a good mental checklist to rehearse such “WHAT IF” scenarios in your mind. And while the going’s good, take notice of both the departure and approach ends of any and all runways that you most encounter, including the home field surroundings. Know where you might be likely to settle safely with as little of bent metal as possible at the slowest possible speed, in case of silence.

There is a term called “The Impossible Turn.” Many people have spoken about it, written about it or YouTubed about it. Yet it remains the Achilles heel of the distracted and inexperienced pilot who wants to save the aircraft, bring it back to the airport scratch-less and defy the aerodynamic limits of the wings (in an engine out scenario, the aircraft essentially belongs to the insurance company, so your safety, the passengers’ safety and those on the ground is paramount).

In a Cessna with 7.4:1 glide ratio, it might be prudent to use 1000 minimum safe altitude to consider returning to the field. Remember that the Impossible Turn at 1000 feet becomes an Improbable Turn since it needs at least 240 degrees of turn to line up with the runway – with a tailwind to boot. Using a bit of mathematics (1091 * TAN of Bank Angle/ TAS in knots) the best rate of turn is about 9.9 degrees/second, which translates to a 45-degree bank angle with a 5-degree nose down attitude to maintain glide speed and have the least amount of altitude loss. (With 45degree bank at 9.9 degrees/second, it takes an average time of 19 seconds and a loss of 400-500 feet in a 180 degree turn).

Cessna throttle quadrant

Practice those key levers, knobs, and switches until you can find them blind.

Loss of power on takeoff at 80 knots in most small GA aircraft leads to a decay of airspeed by 50% in 5-7 seconds and that is way below stall speed. Speeding up to 120 knots on takeoff might get you more distance, but will halve the altitude gain at the 30 seconds of elapsed time from takeoff and that becomes more detrimental to your health. Additionally, a 30-degree bank with zero thrust creates more drag than lift. If faced with this emergency, the most prudent course of action is:

  1. Push the nose down and unload the wings.
  2. Center the ball to reduce drag.
  3. If able: Mixture rich, switch tank and boost pump in one quick movement (since 90% of engine failures in GA aircraft are fuel related).
  4. And FLY THE AIRCRAFT all the way to the scene of the accident (Bob Hoover).

If you look at the #3 item in the “prudent course” discussion, I need to further accentuate the following: Next time you sit in your favorite cockpit, close your eyes and place your hands on the following knobs and switches:

  • Mixture knob
  • Propeller knob
  • Throttle knob
  • Fuel tank lever
  • Boost pump switch

Identifying these landmarks in the blind (closed eyes) creates the comfort of an extraordinary experiential reference that comes into play when faced with an emergency. The brain goes into automatic mode and the hands perform the actions without hesitation (muscle memory).

So please practice the engine out scenario mentally as often as you must and practice in the blind every time you sit in the cockpit… the latter takes 5-7 seconds at most to hit all five landmarks. Do it religiously and often. Practice to refine and maintain your proficiency. Learn what works best for you as you practice with a qualified instructor. The Law of Primacy always remains in effect and abilities decay over time from disuse.




Safety is no accident.

Parvez Dara
Latest posts by Parvez Dara (see all)
29 replies
  1. Carlo Wise
    Carlo Wise says:

    Good article. My only question is, if there is an engine out scenario, what good does pulling the prop all the way out do? There is no power by which a constant speed prop can change pitch angle.

  2. Michael Berenhart
    Michael Berenhart says:

    Humbly disagreeing with the 1000′ rule. Forced landing straight ahead from my in-city home airport (PDK) almost guarantees someone on the ground will be hurt or killed. This led to experimentation with the ‘impossible turn’.

    The altitude lost in the 180° turn is a function of drag and time. Induced drag is fixed once the plane is in the air (weight and wing loading). It takes a certain amount of energy/lift to reverse course, whether done at 20 degrees of bank or 60. The bank becomes important because it determines how long the a/c will be subjected to parasite drag. The formula for rate of turn is 1,091 x (tangent of the bank angle)/KIAS. Since the tangent goes up with angle of bank any increase in bank will increase rate of turn and any increase in speed will reduce it. Since the distance between the descending airplane and the ground can be measured in precious seconds, an expeditious rate of turn is desirable. Thus, more bank and lower KIAS are what you want (with an eye on best glide speed and stalling speed as g’s increase). To illustrate, a 180° turn at 30° of bank at 85 KIAS takes 24 seconds to complete; a 180 at 45° takes 14 seconds; and a 180° at 60° can be completed in only 8.1 seconds. Double the bank from 30 to 60 and cut the time needed to head back to the field from 24 to 8 seconds.

    Several iterations (at altitude) in a Mooney 20E (90 KIAS) yielded altitude loses in a 180° turn of:
    350′ at 30° bank,
    270′ at 45° bank, and
    230′ at 60° bank.

    The steeper bank has the added advantage that the offset from the field is less on rollout.

    It’s important to bear in mind that these figures are from a slippery Mooney which suffers famously little parasitic drag. Consider the coefficient of parasite drag for several popular GA planes:

    Aircraft Cdp Flat Plate Area (sq. ft.)
    Mooney 201 0.017 2.81
    Beech Bonanza 0.019 3.47
    Piper Arrow 0.027 4.64
    Cessna 182 0.031 5.27
    Beech Sierra 0.034 5.02
    Piper Warrior 0.034 5.83
    Cessna 172 0.036 6.25
    Cessna 152 0.038 6.14
    Beech Skipper 0.049 6.36
    Piper Tomahawk 0.054 6.64

    The altitude loss in any other GA aircraft is going to be greater than in a Mooney. Run your own experiment to get a sense of how much altitude you would need to consider the ‘impossible turn’. Also, a lighter aircraft (Mooney, again) will not pay as high an induced drag penalty as one with higher wing loadings. My recommendation is to try several power off 180°s in your plane.

    For what it’s worth, these experiments led me to this: 1) Initial climb at Vy. 2) If a cross-wind, allow plane to drift off centerline (if no parallel runway) or turn 10° to gain lateral distance. 3) Call 300′ as the altitude at which the ‘impossible turn’ becomes feasible (in my Mooney! Determine your own plane’s performance.) 4) Engine failure, rack plane into 45 – 60° turn into crosswind. 5) Pull prop to feather. (Increases the Mooney’s glide ratio almost 20 percent). 6) Maintain Vy. 7) Notify tower to break out the ticker tape or marshmallows.

    I would not challenge the 1000′ rule but for the location of the airport. Rural airports? Forgot all this and glide into the nearest pasture ahead of you. But if, as for many departures, there’s nothing but innocent civilians in your path, know whether the ‘impossible turn’ is possible. And, as Mr. Parvez urges: practice.

    • Michael Bernhart
      Michael Bernhart says:

      Let’s see if the coefficient of parasite drag table can be better displayed. Didn’t expect the tabs to disappear.

      Aircraft ————- Cdp——- Flat Plate Area (sq. ft.)
      Mooney 201 ——- 0.017 —— 2.81
      Beech Bonanza — 0.019 —– 3.47
      Piper Arrow ——– 0.027—— 4.64
      Cessna 182 ——– 0.031 —— 5.27
      Beech Sierra ——- 0.034 —— 5.02
      Piper Warrior —— 0.034 —— 5.83
      Cessna 172 ——- 0.036 —— 6.25
      Cessna 152 ——– 0.038 —— 6.14
      Beech Skipper —- 0.049 —— 6.36
      Piper Tomahawk — 0.054 —– 6.64

    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      Agree completely. I was able to get very close to a 200′ loss with a 60 degree bank in a C172. Regarding turnbacks, it can’t be over-emphasized that it is critical the pilot understands all components, has trained and practiced with a cfi, and is proficient. Parvez makes many great points including emphasis on restart procedures. But in some cases maneuvering is first to anything else because even a one second delay in turning to an available landing area may mean you will not reach it.

  3. Sal M
    Sal M says:

    One of the things that can be “taught” at airports that don’t have good straight ahead emergency landing spots is a turn to X-wind at 400AGL. At that point if you are now 90degrees left/right, you have a much better chance to return to the field.

    AT GEE in San Diego, we did all our turns at 400 AGL because, well you would hit a big hill if you lost your engine. By making a right turn at 400, you had a fighting chance to land on a highway and if you lost engine higher, the turn back is doable.

    I’m not teaching students that don’t have good options to think about that. Yes, I know what the AIM states, but it’s not regulatory.

    ROBERT says:

    I disagree with the advice relative to alternate air on in the event of an engine out. In my Piper, the alternate air toggle enables a cabin air circuit to the pitot/ static instruments, not to the engine. Turning Carb Heat on (Not mentioned, but a darn good idea) will also bypass the normal inlet passage and filter.

    • Cary Alburn
      Cary Alburn says:

      I don’t see that advice in the article. Typically, though, fuel injected aircraft have an alternate air door to bypass the air filter, which can get plugged by induction ice. A loss of power follows. Although most alternate air doors are spring-loaded and should open automatically, most also have a manual method to open them.

      • Cary Alburn
        Cary Alburn says:

        Whoops—just saw it after rereading. So I think you misunderstood which knob he was describing. Alternate static air and alternate induction air are completely different items.

  5. Mark D.
    Mark D. says:

    Ultimately if you don’t fly the airplane first by accomplishing step 1. PUSH (to unload the wing) then all the rest does not matter. The first priority that should be emphasized and practiced for an engine failure after takeoff is to keep the airplane flying no matter where you are and what’s around you. Bob Hoover harped on the idea of “flying the airplane all the way to the crash site” because almost no one does.

  6. RichR
    RichR says:

    Besides procedures and specs, take your airplane out to a safe place/altitude and PRACTICE. From that you’ll learn what YOU can master in YOUR airplane, don’t plan for better performance when surprised with a real emergency. If you aren’t satisfied with results, practice more!

    The most important muscle memory to establish is the push required to stay above stall after losing power. You may be surprised at the pitch change from a full power climb.

    Treat any engine hiccup as a potential emergency, don’t venture away from the field hoping it will get better. First flight after any maintenance should be above traffic pattern to wring it out, then back to land and pop panels for a look/see…before a flight departing the area.

    If engine loss happens, stay in charge, put the nose where you decide it needs to go, if time, quick check fixable items and/or prep for off field, and when down to communicating TELL, do not ask ATC or CTAF, what you are doing…use “Emergency” and “standby” to give yourself time and processing power to bring it to a safe conclusion, plenty of time for discussion after walking away.

  7. Dr. Manarii Tane
    Dr. Manarii Tane says:

    I find some of these theoretical comments and the article interesting reading, but I question the practicality of some suggestions. Remember, it takes a pilot (new or experienced) a few seconds (3 to 5 seconds) to realize that a problem has occurred and to respond to the problem – lots of lost altitude during that time. Have a plan if there might be an engine out on takeoff and stick to it. Practice engine-out 180 turns at a safe altitude and learn the aircraft characteristics.

  8. Rich Oleszczuk
    Rich Oleszczuk says:

    I can speak from experience having had 10 engine failures. I flew an ultralight that had its single cylinder engine mounted upside down (277 Rotax in a J-3 Kitten). I rarely flew above 1000’ agl and after the second failure I realized that there was zero time to do anything but pick out the best field in which to land. There are usually survivable options here in northern Illinois. I would focus 100% on making the field and never tried to stretch the glide. The Kitten (a high wing) allowed me to quickly glance left and right and choose.
    Now I fly a Piper Cherokee and at higher altitudes than the ultralight and a very reliable power plant. However, my engine out procedure below 1000’ is still the same except that I limit my options to fields to the left front because of the blind spots everywhere else. After the initial shock of the sudden silence in the cockpit it takes more than a few seconds to gather your wits. Experience taught me that you biggest challenge is LACK OF TIME.

  9. Eric
    Eric says:

    Good article, and good discussion. The discussion on the Cessna appears to be a high performance one with a best glide speed in the range of 110 KTAS. Results for lower speed aircraft will be different.
    As some have mentioned, best to do #1 and Push the airplane, quickly. But, how much do you push? Speed is based upon aircraft pitch, and Pitch plus Power (in this case no power) = Performance. The FAA’s Aircraft Flying Handbook talks about identifying a spot on the windscreen, directly in front of the pilot when in level flight.
    We might consider teaching pilots more about this spot and how it relates to various phases of flight. Where should this spot be on climbout, cruise, turns (including steep turns), and power out. For this discussion, engine failure on takeoff, if you want to maintain best glide speed, you need to pitch to the idle-power-best-glide-speed pitch attitude, you don’t need the ASI to get close, then trim!!! And, practice this many times!!

  10. jon
    jon says:

    had oil P reading blinking zero on climbout @ +250′, not much runway ahead, declared E (damn hard to do funnily enough), requested to return on parallel runway, rather than fly the pattern as atc suggested, but came in at a 45* around the 1K bars, straightened her out & landed long …by then the oil-p was back to normal (loose sensor connection) my main point being, you dont have to enter across the threshold, do as little turning as you have to, holding best glide.

  11. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    I have occasionally pondered the wisdom of picking a hard altitude from which I might try a 180 degree turn. There are other variables to be considered. One of those is where is the airplane at relative to the runway? A loaded 172 on a hot day will be a lot further from the runway at 1000′ than it will be at lightweight on a cold day.

    Also, just mindlessly going to best glide speed, with prop control pulled back might not be the best if a good field is right under you and requires a good slip and a lot of drag to get into.

    There are so many variables and considerations, it seems impossible to make one prescription to fit all. Experience can help a lot, blended with refresher training; and a small dose of luck.

  12. Andy K
    Andy K says:

    As a pilot of rented single engine airplanes, I am always looking for a place to land. I found what adds to peace of mind is an overall scan while in the pattern if it is unfamiliar so a viable off-field EFATO landing place can be an option. This is filed in the memory bank. In sailing to new destinations there is a topic called local knowledge. I recommend getting all the local knowledge as possible; file it under knowing all you can about the airport. There is an excellent Youtube video of a CFI and a pilot doing actual drills (throttle to idle) of EFATO’s; the pilot eventually pushes the nose over immediately without delay. It is the shock of the engine out and silence that costs valuable time.

  13. ParvezD
    ParvezD says:

    Some Excellent Responses to the Article by the Aviators. Great Suggestions and generous Comments. Appreciate the insights.
    Practice…Always to your own personal magic carpet and above all Fly with Safety in mind.
    THANK YOU All!

  14. DennisP
    DennisP says:

    I always check out new airports on Google Earth before I fly. Great way to spot emergency sites prior to getting in the plane.

  15. RJ
    RJ says:

    Considering the author is an ATP, I’d like to read his thoughts on DMMS (defined minimum maneuvering speed). I’ve learned that all airline pilots are trained to know this speed and use it in a loss of thrust emergency. Flight Chops published a video on the subject. I encourage everyone to watch it then calculate and mark this airspeed on your airplane’s airspeed indicator.

    The video highlights a sad fact that not enough GA pilots are taught about this critical speed.

    Video: https://youtu.be/m_tKShlf_gU

  16. John
    John says:

    I’m looking through the C172S NAVIII POH, and the emergency checklist has many items which contradict the article above, and some which don’t appear in the article at all. I realize that the article’s checklist is a one-size fits all that may not apply to all GA aircraft, but I’d like to address some of the discrepancies:

    1. Airspeed -70 KIAS Flaps UP (agrees with article)
    -65 KIAS Flaps 10 degrees-FULL
    2. Mixture-IDLE CUTOFF (contradicts article, which says to push full rich mixture)
    3. Fuel shutoff valve-OFF (contradicts article, which says to switch to fullest tank)
    4. Magneto switch-OFF (contradicts article, which says to switch magnetos to BOTH)
    5.Wing flaps-AS REQUIRED (Full recommended) (not addressed in article)
    6.STBY BATT Switch-OFF (not addressed in article)
    7. Master switch(ALT and BATT)-OFF (not addressed in article)
    8. Cabin door-UNLATCH (not addressed in article)
    9. Land-STRAIGHT AHEAD (agrees with article, which says to land within 20 degrees of straight ahead)

    Likewise, some items are listed in the article which don’t appear in the POH, such as turning the boost pump on and pulling alternate air. So, which checklist should be followed in an emergency, the one in the article, or the one in the POH?

  17. Bob
    Bob says:

    The check list from John’s 172S POH, as opposed to the author’s, is evidently written for an imminent crash possibility, as its emphasis is shutting down to prevent a post crash fire & to facilitate egress; e.g., not enough remaining runway & no viable overrun and too little altitude to attempt a restart, let alone make any significant turn. The author is addressing the possibility of a restart, assuming a non-catastrophic power failure. In any case, a startling complete power failure while in a low energy state ( low altitude & IAS), with no straight ahead options is no time for a first analysis of options.

    • John
      John says:

      You’re right. If I’d read a bit further I would have noticed the ENGINE FAILURE DURING FLIGHT restart procedures checklist, which is very similar to Mr. Dara’s checklist:

      1. Airspeed-68 KIAS (best glide)
      2. Fuel Shutoff Valve – ON (push full in)
      3. Fuel selector valve – BOTH
      4. Fuel pump switch – ON
      5. Mixture control – RICH
      6. Magnetos – BOTH (or START if propeller has stopped)
      NOTE: If the propeller is windmilling, engine will restart automatically within a few seconds. If propeller has stopped (possible at low speeds), turn Magneto switch to start, advance throttle slowly from idle and lean the mixture from full rich as required to obtain smooth operation.
      7. Fuel Pump switch – OFF
      NOTE: If the indicate fuel flow (FFLOW GPH) drops to zero, a sign of failure of the engine-driven fuel pump, return the fuel pump switch to the ON position.

      There are minor differences in the order of operations, but the main difference is the last item. It seems like turning the boost pump on right away would be the best choice.

  18. Bob Salway
    Bob Salway says:

    Hey. If you are at cruise, grab some extra altitude an trim to best glide ASAP. Turn towards the field you had in mind(You did have a field in mind as you were flying didn’t you)?
    Why did the engine stop. Gas, sparks, and air. Check for a restart. No luck then a mayday call, and pax Brief. Shut down gas, and sparks. Depending upon type, master. To isolate all possible fire. Fly the aeroplane to the possible crash site.
    Keep it simple!!!!!

  19. Chuck Stone
    Chuck Stone says:

    My take away:
    1. Don’t try this if you are a low time pilot!
    2. Landing ahead is statically is your best bet.
    3. If you are considering this maneuver, first try in a simulator, you may be surprised!
    4. Determine what AGL altitude this will work for the airplane you most often fly, then add 25% because you are not Bob Hoover!

    Read EAA magazine article on this subject by Brian Schiff.


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