Engine failure at 150 feet, with a glider in tow

Once upon a time at Chardon, Ohio, where Cleveland Soaring Society was managing the airport and enjoying a long, pleasant stay at a wonderful grass airport, we had an exciting event. By good fortune, this event produced no damage or injuries. The good fortune was a Christmas Party at the Lithuanian Club in Cleveland on East 185th St. We were all temporary Lithuanians thanks to member Rimvidas “Ray” Cepulis. Someone, likely Steve Raab, had invited well known glider pilot and flight training writer Tom Knauff as a guest speaker. He had everyone write questions regarding safety on small slips of paper, which were collected and Tom responded with many excellent answers.

I did not know what to write but since I was also a tow pilot, I wrote a tow pilot dilemma: “What does one do if there is an engine failure on tow at low altitude?” Part of Tom’s answer was embedded in my brain. He said if you have a tow-plane problem you cannot do anything to help the glider pilot. He/she is on their own and the best thing you can do is let them know right away so they can deal with the glider part of the problem. I think he said good luck on the rest. He may have said what Steve often said while instructing new pilots: “Do what you gotta do.”

A couple of years passed. A new engine had been installed in the Scout and we were operating normally. At Chardon, Ohio, which had a relatively short, 3000-ft runway, we kept the fuel load light, enough fuel for ten tows. The Scout at that time had tanks with a seventy gallon capacity. It had been calculated, through experience, that we used a gallon and a half per tow. We would normally put a maximum of ten gallons in each tank and refill after ten tows, thus remaining light.

I was towing and we were taking a passenger on a ride. As I recall the ride was a very attractive young lady so there were many volunteers among the commercial pilots, but it was Joni Whitten’s turn and she was not relinquishing that turn. The flight was normal until we were at about a 150 feet over the woods at the south end of the runway, when the engine quit.

This is not something anyone wants to experience, including me, maybe especially me. Fortunately, I instinctively and instantly put the nose down to prevent a stall. I need to stress instantly. When towing you are close to a stall and the glider drag will get you to stall speed very quickly.

Glider on tow
What happens when the towplane engine quits this low?

Joni saw me disappear below her view, released and went into rope break mode. As I was sinking into the trees and looking ahead for a landing spot, remaining fuel sloshed forward to the fuel pickup and the engine started again… briefly. I saw I was not going to reach any forward landing site so I did that which is frowned upon. I did a 45-degree banked turn, which was well above stall speed and headed back to the field and quickly released the rope. As I was 90 degrees through the turn, the engine quit again but the turn sloshed more fuel into the pickup and I had another brief spurt of power before it quit again. I made it back to land downwind at the field.

I looked in the mirror, wondering “Oh my God, what happened to Joni” and there, to my great relief, was Joni on her final approach behind me. The engine again started and ran long enough to get me clear of the runway. It quit for a final time and I coasted to the gas pump. Joni had calmly flown a standard 180 back to the field as well.

The passenger remarked that the flight was shorter than she expected and I believe was surprised that she got her money back. How is that for calmness and handling an emergency? The passenger was unaware. Until Joni learned what happened she said she wanted to kill me for releasing her. We had both released the rope almost simultaneously. She assumed that since I made it back to the field I could not have had a power loss.

I do not know what was going on in Joni’s mind but it was likely similar to mine. I was operating in a mode that was likely put there by all my previous experience, instruction, listening to hangar tales, and finally Tom Knauff’s remark at the Christmas meeting: “You can’t do anything for the glider; solve your own problem and let them solve theirs.” I can say I was in a different time mode, everything slowed down, and I seemed to be an observer of the actions I was taking. Some of them must have been correct. It was interesting and I never want to do it again. I recall not having time to think the standard two word remark, oh #%&*!

Several crucial learning points come to mind. Bad stuff can, and sometimes will happen. Do the necessary training to be prepared—it’s what takes over under duress. If you are a tow pilot, get the nose down in a hurry if power fails; you are close to stall with a lot of drag. You can’t wait for the plane to slow down normally.

Finally, the cause of the power failure was an assumption we made. We never checked to see if the new engine used the same amount of fuel per tow. This one used two gallons, not one and a half. We wanted to keep it light, but not that light. We almost learned the hard way.

Cleveland Soaring could be flying a different tow plane if we hadn’t been very lucky. I also wouldn’t have flown it long enough for Rich Freeman to later give me the nickname Frosty the Towman.

Joni reacted properly by instinctively releasing the tow rope as soon as she saw me disappear below the panel, and I would not, and should not, have made the turn back to the airport had the engine not restarted after already releasing my end of the towrope. The correct decision I made was to keep the aircraft above stall speed in the 45-degree banked turn and was flying it to wherever it was going, not spinning in.

I often think about my decision at 150 feet, to return to the airport, and wonder if it was based on instant good judgment relating to the brief engine restart, or just plain panic that happened to work out well. I hope I never have to encounter a similar event to find out. If you do, I can only recommend landing under control, above stall speed, almost straight ahead in the least damaging location. Maybe you need a new better towplane, anyhow.

13 Comments

  • I have done similar forced landings, mostly coming out of the crop field in spray planes. I think your spray experience served you well in this glider tow low engine failure. They were around six second deals and involved landing in the near hemisphere visible from such low altitude. I had the extra fuel to continue once with a pipeline Cardinal. I turned the fuel pump on (in a high wing?) on and messed up long way in an eighty. Second on after pump fuel ran out was short way across the quarter mile end of the eighty. Like the man said, do what is necessary.

  • WOW! What an incredible True-To-Life flying experience… and to share. Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU George! In my ~50+ years in the US Air Force flying Piper Gub, T-28, T-33, and B-47 aircraft… T-33, F-84, and F-86H aircraft in the Mass. Air National Guard; and finally owning and flying a Cessna 182; I had only one ‘Engine Failure’. It occurred while I was in US Air Force Pilot Training learning to fly the T-33 aircraft. I was solo on a formation flight with another T-33 that had a student and instructor in it. After checking the transfer of fuel from all tanks to the engine I neglected to pressurize the wing tip tanks…. so at about 5,000 ft. AGL I flamed out… thought I had a turbine failure … and did a perfect ‘dead stick’ landing back a home base…received 150 merits … but 5,000 demerits for NOT just preeurizing the wing tip tanks to get fuel… Very Important Lesson Learned!

  • Hey, George, my eyes and ears really perked up when I read that you and the Cleveland Soaring Society were operating at Chardon Airport in Ohio. But you didn’t tell us WHEN that was. Was this the old airport just south of Chardon? The one owned by Walter Best?

    I learned to fly at Chardon under the tender, loving tutelage of Lester Dethloff. Soloed his J-3 in 1957 and got my private in an Aeronca 7AC on skis a year later. Lester died just a few years later and the airport was abandoned not too long after that. On top of that, I graduated from Kent State in 1965.

    But what really got to me was that in 1962 I became one of the charter members of the Cleveland Soaring Society when it was started by a bunch of pilots who were mostly also hangar rats at Chardon.

    So that makes me wonder, did you know Bunch Woods, Bill McLaughlin, Bud Vacariello, Bruce Kelly, or John Williams? They were the guys who did the groundwork to create CSS.

    None of them — or us — had ever flown a glider and there was no one around who could teach us. So in the early summer of 1962 a bunch of us headed to Erie, Pennsylvania and Larry Gherlein’s Thermal G Gliderport not far south of Lake Erie. I managed to solo in two days, got my SSA C Badge and then, for financial reasons didn’t fly a glider again until many years later. We flew those first flights in Erie using a winch tow. Boy, is that an exciting experience! Had a cable break on my first solo flight there . . .

    So I guess my questions are: Was the airport where this story takes place the old Chardon airport before it closed? Did you know any of the great guys I flew with there in those prehistoric days? Are any of them still hanging around? And when did the story you’re telling here take place?

    Oh, boy . . . . memories!
    Wonderful aren’t they?

    • Hey Terry, glad to hear from you again. I’m now in NM, the land of enchantment. Still flying in a fairly recently purchased GlaStar and having a good time at 90. Those times with CSS were great. Are you still racing?

    • Yes it was Walter Best’s old airport south of Chardon. I think that event happened sometime in the late Seventies. A log book search would tell me. I believe Steve Raab was one of the founders and flew with the club the whole time I was a member. The Gehrleins did annuals and a repair or two on my gliders. Did not know Larry but did know his sons Jay and Rod. The Gehrleins were amazing, they were into so many things and experts at all of them. Great guys as well. I have the feeling I may know you, too. I am afraid time has removed all of our old buddies but not the memory of great times with all of them at CSS. Side note: I have an entry in my logbook signed by Les Schweizer when he had just gotten his CFIG. Maybe he was 16. The entry was for four auto tows at Elmira. I think they were required at the time for CFIG. I had winch tows from a year in Iran and you are right, they are exciting. Certainly right about the good memories, as well.

  • Great story, I’m impressed, you made it back to field. I had a similar incident taking off on a really hot humid summer day, while I was a student pilot. I was flying a Cesna 152, but of course we weren’t towing a glider. We had just taken off, and the engine started chocking and coughing really badly, we were at about 300 ft AGL, and I looked at my instructor and froze, he yelled at me, and said “lower the nose immediately,” I did and luckily for us the engine came back to life. Either way you made the right decision cause not only did you make it back to the field. But the glider pilot behind you made it back to safety as well. Wow excellent flying skills under the stress of a forced landing!

  • Thanks for writing the story George. I was the glider pilot being towed, with a passenger on board. We were taught to always say “200 ft.” to acknowledge a safe altitude to make a safe turn back to the field, however, that day we were at only about 150 ft. Seeing the towplane disappear from my view was something never to forget. Instinct was to im-mediatly pull the release and worry about George later. Remembering proper airspeed, coordinated turn, and a little prayer, we made it back without incident. Great memory!

    • Hello to “Frosty” and Joni Good to hear the old CSS crowd are still kicking. Terry Morgan here. I’ve transitioned to tail-dragger powered Aeronca 7AC occasionally flown from Wadsworth Municipal. But whenever I think of practicing the “flying where it goes” and managing energy. Hello to Lee Dalton, also… Chardon was before my time associating with Cleveland Soaring Society!

  • What about seat belt failure during tow?

    I was taking a ride in a Blanik at Santa Ynez Airport in Calif and after the glider pilot released the tow rope he did a steep climbing 360 turn. And as we came back around he said, “Look at that!” and we saw the Scout towplane spinning by us, no more than 100 ft away. It turned out that when the glider released the Scout pilot (a USN pilot applicant waiting for a training slot) decided to practice a stall. When the stall broke his harness released, he floated up against the cabin roof and let go of the controls, and the Scout spun.

    I was thinking of getting a glider rating to go with my Private Pilot license but decided those people were crazy.

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