11 min read

It was July 10, 1982, and looking for any excuse to fly, I offered to take my 12-year-old nephew from Dallas to Austin, Texas, for a track and field tournament. His father and his 8-year-old brother, my sister’s whole family, would also be going. I had been a pilot for 10 years, but seven of those years were right after college, and absent the time and money, I put flying on hold. I eventually purchased a plane in 1981 when my accountant told me I could afford it. On the day of this incident, I had accumulated a total of only 95 hours since receiving my private license.

The weather forecast for the day was clear with a temperature in the mid 90s for both Dallas and Austin. I was eager to use the newly installed panel upgrades to my 1961 Mooney Mark 21: a new artificial horizon, new VOR with localizer and GS, digital DME, and digital coms. I previously added flap gap seals to reduce drag, modestly increase my airspeed, and improve the already impressive 12 to 1 glide ratio.

We boarded the plane mid-morning and departed Dallas Love Field. We flew direct to Austin’s Robert Mueller Municipal Airport without incident. At the tournament, we watched my nephew compete. When it was time for the return flight, it was already later in the evening. My brother-in-law sat right seat and my two nephews sat in the back seats.


A great way to travel, until the RPMs unexpectedly increase.

The first 90 miles of the flight were smooth and unremarkable, cruising at an altitude of 10,500. I was enjoying the benefits offered by my new avionics upgrade. We had just passed over Waco Lake, just south of Waco Regional Airport, on our way back to Dallas. We were all enjoying the smooth flight and the wonderful views of the ground and clear skies along the way.

A few minutes later, exactly 10 DME north of Waco Regional according to my new DME, my propeller speed instantly shot up from 2450 RPMs to the dial’s peg. The sound of the prop increased with it and immediately got my attention. I first checked my gauges. The oil temperature and pressure gauges were both in the green, as was everything else. The only instrument indicating a problem was the RPMs of the propeller.

I immediately turned 180 degrees to go back to the airport I had just passed over, Waco Regional. At the same time, I began pulling the propeller control back to reduce the RPMs, with no effect. I then grabbed the throttle control and pulled it back. By reducing the throttle all the way, was I able to reduce the propeller speed back to within normal operating range. Although my propeller was still turning at 2450 RPMs, I could tell it was not producing thrust.

I quickly found the tower frequency at Waco and called to announce my intentions for a straight-in approach for runway 19, saying I was experiencing engine trouble. I then heard the tower immediately divert all other incoming traffic, including a commercial commuter. I could see the airport, so I set up the plane for best glide speed. From my view of the horizon, while assessing my rate of descent, I was confident I could easily make it to the airport.

While all this was happening, I was recalling the first three years after getting my license in 1972, when I would read copious accident reports from the NTSB (something I still do), hoping to learn from the mistakes of others. The conclusion of a majority of fatal accidents was always the same: pilot error. Trying to stretch a glide to reach an airport without an engine when there was not enough altitude was usually the cause for loss of control on approach, which led to low altitude stall/spin fatal accidents. I was not about to try that. I also recalled that an in-flight mechanical failure is extremely rare, so I kept wondering, “What could I have done to cause this?” Then came the strong smell of burning oil.

My concern shifted to a fire in the cockpit and my 8- and 12-year-old nephews. That concern was short lived, as moments later, my previously invisible propeller turning at 2450 RPMs abruptly stopped, looking like the minute hand of a clock pointing to one o’clock. At the same time, complete silence—total power failure—dead stick.

My glide was compromised by the additional drag from the now frozen propeller. The concern of a cabin fire greatly diminished; I reevaluated my gliding distance. It only took a quick glance to realize I would not make the airport. I called the tower again, this time to declare an emergency due to total engine loss and let them know I would not be landing at the airport.

The controller’s voice cracked and changed to a high pitch, as if panic had tightened his vocal cords. I rhetorically asked my brother-in-law, “What’s he worried about, we are the ones in the airplane?”

Then the controller calmly asked, “How many souls are on board and where they are seated?” That was a sobering and unanticipated question. Then he asked me if I knew where I was going to land.

Waco airport

When the airport that suddenly looked reachable is no longer an option, where do you land?

The search for alternative landing spots began. It was only a few minutes before dark, so I hoped to find a suitable road or field before I could no longer see, but all the roads were narrow, dirt farm roads with nearby fences and telephone poles, and all the fields were freshly plowed. Seeing no better alternatives to either side, I proceeded straight ahead.

It was nearing decision time of where to put her down. The Brazos River was dead ahead and perpendicular to my path. The riverbanks were lined with trees and it was going to be close, so much so my brother-in-law commented, “Are we going to hit the trees?”

I could see just beyond the river what appeared to be a large, unplowed field. I assured my brother-in-law we would miss the trees, confident I could make it to the field beyond. I contacted the Waco Tower to let them know I was attempting to land in a field approximately two miles from the airport. They told me to maintain radio contact. I responded, “I will if I can.”

The diminished light prevented me seeing all the cows in the field until I was just over the river. Hitting a stationary, 1,200-pound cow was not desirable. Still looking, I saw a fence line to the right, parallel to my path by a few hundred feet, and not full of cows. I gently slid the plane to the right to avoid a stall and lined up to land. Because the rear of the vertical stabilizer and rudder of a Mooney slants forward, it is easy to make modest coordinated turns using only the rudder pedals.

It was a narrow field, but it was long, which gave the appearance of a runway. Almost dark, I did not see the bull in the middle of the field until I was lined up and my landing light illuminated him in the distance. He was positioned between the fence and a large tree, and standing under a large electrical highline (yeh, I did not see that either). Having to thread that needle, over the bull, under the highline, right of the fence, left of the tree, all while keeping my gear up until I cleared the bull, and then quickly lowering it before I landed in the tall grass was my last flying skills challenge. Fortunately, my Mooney had manual retractable gear, therefore I could raise or lower it in less than two seconds, or I could have left it up.

I lowered the gear as I passed over the bull and the plane touched down, harder than my usual, but no one else noticed. This was a soft field landing in tall grass. Not wanting to flip the plane by the nose gear hitting… who knows what… I was holding the stick against my chest to keep the nose gear as light as possible. With my headlight on, I saw posts and strands of barbed wire in the far fence I was rapidly approaching. I had to brake hard to avoid hitting the fence. The plane finally came to rest a few feet short of the fence, which was within the length of a football field from the farmhouse.

As soon as we stopped, I tried to contact Waco Tower by radio, but because I was on the ground with a belly antenna probably bent from rolling through the tall grass, I received no response. When I exited the plane, I was surprised see the entire right side of the plane covered in crankcase oil, from the front engine cowling all the way to the tail. I was finally relieved that whatever happened, it was not pilot error.


An open field is great, but what about livestock?

I saw the lights on at what I came to know as the Gorham Ranch house. I walked up the front porch steps and knocked on the screen door. An elderly lady came to the door with a look of surprise. I asked, “May I came in and use your phone? I just landed my airplane in your field and I need to contact the airport to let them know we are all alright.”

She said, “Well, I didn’t hear anything.”

I responded, “That’s the problem, that plane hasn’t been making a sound for quite some time now.” To lighten it up a little I then said, “You know I couldn’t make out the runway numbers on that grass strip.”

She immediately responded and said, “If had known you were landing there, I would have turned on the runway lights.”

Obviously good natured, she graciously let me in to use her phone. I called the tower to let them know we landed without incident. The tower told me they already dispatched the sheriff. I could not have been in the house more than a couple of minutes, but when I walked back outside, there was a helicopter circling above my plane with a spotlight, and the sheriff, an ambulance, and the Waco Tribune news truck all pulling up at the same time.

Their emergency response time was impressive, and the help offered by everyone was very professional and touching. I made the front page of the Waco Tribune.

We caught a ride with the sheriff to where we could rent a car for the drive back to Dallas. My brother-in-law was still a little shaken from the experience, so I had to drive. But when we got back to Dallas he said, “If you get that plane fixed and want to fly it out of that field, I’d be honored to fly out of there with you.”

The younger of the two nephews on board was the most anxious during the ordeal, but it apparently did not give him a phobia about flying. All grown up, and after graduating college, he now has a successful career as a pilot for Jet Blue, a job he has been enjoying for a couple of decades.

I made the trip back to Waco to view the engine once it was towed the two miles to Waco Regional, where they had a suitable repair shop. This was a high-performance airplane. The propeller was controlled by using differential oil pressure regulated by the propeller control lever in the airplane. The oil used was crankcase oil pumped to the propeller through a rigid tube that left the engine on the port side, turned 90 degrees, and connected to the propeller assembly.

Although the tube was not heavy, I noticed it had no structural support from the place where it left the engine all the way to the propeller. It broke from metal fatigue, probably due to engine vibration and the lack of any structural support. When it broke, it rapidly pumped out all the crankcase oil, which eventually caused the engine and propeller to seize.

Because of the failure, I had to replace both my engine and propeller. There was no damage to the airplane itself. I contacted the FAA and described what I thought happened with the unsupported rigid tube. From my information, they published an Airworthiness Directive for all engines like mine to immediately replace the rigid tube with a flexible, steel braided hose that would withstand the vibration without failing. Problem solved.

I was lucky the failure did not occur 10 minutes later, or I would have been landing somewhere in the dark. I kept that plane for another seven years until someone saw it, looked me up, and wanted it bad enough to pay whatever I asked. I miss flying my own plane because the familiarity is comfortable, like an extension of myself, instinctively knowing where everything is without having to think or search. I was able to remain calm, I knew how the plane would perform, and I remembered my instructor saying, “Keep flying the plane!”

Al Cercone
Latest posts by Al Cercone (see all)
9 replies
  1. Rivegauche610
    Rivegauche610 says:

    My first thought at the end of the article was why a Mooney engineer would have been satisfied with the rigid, bent 90 pipe when the ultimate solution of the flexible, reinforced pipe would have been so much more sound? Spending another third of the airplane’s worth (or more) – again – must have been quite a shock after the previous shock of the forced landing.

  2. Al Cercone
    Al Cercone says:

    After I looked at it, it was my first thought too. I thought, “it had to break”, it was only a matter of time.

  3. Dan Mower
    Dan Mower says:

    “once it was towed the two miles to Waco Regional”… can you elaborate on how the plan was transported to the Waco airport? I’m a Mooney pilot and have often wondered how to move the plane after an off-field landing. The wing is very difficult to remove…

  4. Al Cercone
    Al Cercone says:

    Dan Mower, since there was nothing but relatively flat land from my landing site to the airport, it was easier to load it on a large flatbed truck without removing the wings and drive it straight to the airport. Several fences had to be removed and replaced, but that was all.

  5. Ron Blum
    Ron Blum says:

    Wonderful story and wonderful way to handle the inflight emergency.

    Hard lines are less expensive, easier to fabricate in house and significantly lighter, Yes, we have to consider fatigue/vibration, though, too. Engine and propeller controls should shake together. Unsupported is never good. Thanks again for a great story.


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