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I have had a long flying career of 44 years as a military and commercial airline pilot, and by the time I retired in 2016, I had amassed some 30,000 flying hours. As a military and civilian pilot, I have experienced many emergencies, but one episode sticks out in my mind: an engine failure. I have had nine of them, two of which resulted in forced landings. One was on a runway at Mackinac Island, Michigan; the other was in a wheat field in South Dakota. This article is about the wheat field and a self-inflicted engine loss.

In the late 70s, while I was in the Air Force, I flew in my off time, teaching and acquiring all my flight instructor certificates. One Saturday afternoon, I went up for an over-the-shoulder observation of a multi-engine student getting ready for his multi-engine checkride (I was going for my multi-engine instructor rating ride the next day). When I first started flying light twin-engine aircraft, my instructor told me that I was now entering the most dangerous period of my flight instruction career. Oh, how right he was!


The Piper Apache is not known for its stellar engine-out performance.

We took off in an Apache that had seen much use in its day. The weather was hot, and we were at an altitude of about 3,000 feet AGL, which is about 6,000 feet MSL. As it turned out, this combination of altitude and temperature was a bit much for an Apache on one engine. The student occupied the left seat and the owner of the flight school occupied the right seat. Everything was going normal until we got to the ride segment, where we would do single engine work. Our flight school had a procedure to simulate an engine loss by pulling back the throttle to a predetermined manifold pressure. For some reason, the chief pilot pulled back the prop control and not the throttle. The engine failed, and the propeller feathered.

Well, this was certainly interesting from my backseat perspective! The student kept flying the plane, and the instructor initiated restart procedures. Now, my main flying background was in jets, which laugh off an engine loss. The B-52 has eight engines, and literally, you can lose an engine and not feel a thing. Not so with an Apache. As I always taught my students, a second engine on a light twin can cause you more problems than an engine loss on a single engine aircraft. An engine loss on a twin delays the inevitable landing, be it at an airport or wheat field. That remaining engine will give you some options, but you had better know what to do with it.

The Apache was not able to maintain altitude on one engine. The plane kept descending, but the two pilots up front did not seem to be aware of this. The heading and airspeed control were not stable, and the engine would not develop enough rotation to unfeather the propeller. It became apparent that the student and instructor had lost their situational awareness. The instructor was bore-sighted on trying to start the engine. The student was distracted by what was going on. There was a small airport nearby, but the opportunity to make that field had come and gone. The lack of a proper plan to resolve this emergency was starting to put us in danger.

At about 500 feet AGL, I told the student flying to fly straight ahead at 80 knots. He did this flawlessly. I told the instructor to stop trying to start the engine and take control of the airplane, because we would be landing in less than a minute. Sizing up our landing site, I looked out in front of the plane and saw a freshly harvested wheat field about the size of Rhode Island. It was so flat that I believed if you stood on a beer can, you could see Dallas. It looked like a great port in a storm to me.

With the instructor flying and a clear plan of action, we calmed down and got ready to land. As we approached the ground, I blurted out that the gear was not down. The instructor immediately put the landing gear handle down and advanced the operating engine to prolong the flare. Oh great, I was hoping that we were above Minimum Controllable Airspeed at that particular moment so that the plane would not flip. Our airspeed was just fine, and the aircraft continued straight ahead. Two green lights appeared, indicating the main gear was down and locked. Almost at the same moment, the mains touched down. I then said I saw two green gear lights but not the green light for the nose wheel. The instructor kept the nose off the wheat field, and a few seconds later, the third green light appeared, indicating the nose wheel was down and locked, and the plane completed its landing. There was no damage to the aircraft or crew.

We were on the ground safe and sound, and we decided to see if we could restart the right engine. It cranked, but the propeller would not unfeather. We stopped trying to crank the engine. We got out of the plane to stretch and figure out a plan of action.

Prop hub

How do you get that prop unfeathered when it just doesn’t want to?

Now the next part of the story I am not making up. We noticed nearby a small ditch with some trees growing around it. I walked over there and spotted the skeletal remains of a cow. We hatched a plan that, perhaps using two cow rib bones as a vice and three pilots’ strength, maybe we could manually unfeather the prop. We put the bones parallel to each other with the propeller in the middle. We grabbed the end of the ribs, which now acted as torque enhancers. Our brute strength and good fortune convinced the propeller to unstow from its feathered position. It worked!

Soon we had the engine started. We pulled out the performance manual and quickly calculated how much distance we would need to take off. I went out and paced off the required takeoff distance and noted no adverse ground conditions. I looked at the previous crew and decided they had gone through enough so I would fly the plane out. We rolled down the harvested wheat field and lifted off. During the initial climb out, we felt relief that the takeoff worked.

Seconds later, we became aware of a large power line; it was one of those massive ones! We were too close to fly over it or turn, so what the heck—let’s add a little more drama to the story. I decided to fly under it. No sweat, once we passed the power lines, we headed back to our home field without further incident.

This flying episode brought to light some lessons learned.

  • Flight plan for success
  • Know your plane and its systems
  • Know the performance limits of the plane
  • Thoroughly brief the mission either to yourself or your instructor
  • Know the plane’s emergency procedures
  • Practice those procedures
  • Be prepared for an emergency and feel very confident that you can successfully resolve the emergency
  • Fly a lot and keep current

One cannot overemphasize the need to plan your flight to successfully and safely complete your mission. Thorough system knowledge is a must. Knowing the performance limits and, in the case of a twin-engine aircraft, knowing the minimum controllable airspeed is critical. Never fly slower than that speed. Brief the mission, meaning ensure you know every detail of your flight before you lift off. It will be your objective to fly the mission as planned. Be in charge—do not let the plane be in charge of you. Know the plane’s emergency procedures and practice them. In case of an emergency, you want to perform these procedures without taking away from controlling the airplane.

I want to interject that your first objective is to fly the airplane! In the case of a training flight, make sure that you and your instructor agree on the flight’s itinerary and the procedures for simulating an emergency. As the pilot in command, you will have a daunting task to manage and resolve an emergency. That success will depend on how well you have prepared yourself for the moment. Maintain situational awareness. You might have a lot of time, or you might have to make a split-second decision. Learn your plane and fly a lot. Enroute, keep up with emergency landing fields. Be ready to divert to one. Safety is a prerequisite to flying. Make sure you are aware of all factors that could adversely affect your flight. Flying is no place for amateur decisions; be professional in your attitude and conduct. Engine failures are inevitable. Be ready for it!

After all the dust settled, I got my multi-engine instructor rating the next day. Before my rating ride, I briefed the evaluator that he would not have a left arm if he pulled back the prop control. The rib bones became souvenirs. The whole engine out episode did not take very long. In those few minutes, I learned more about flying light twins than I could have gotten from any number of lessons. Hopefully, it will never happen to you.

Craig Warner
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20 replies
  1. Ron Horton
    Ron Horton says:

    So much valuable information in this article. Lessons from real life should be heeded – this flight may have started out as a training exercise, but it quickly offered challenges way beyond the original intent. The Lessons Learned that Craig lists are well stated. As a CFI and DPE I see a lot of weakness in emergency procedures and a lot of things in that Lessons Learned list that need to be added to every pilot’s toolbox. Thank you for a great article and for sharing the wisdom that you have earned through all those hours of flying. All of us can learn from these words, but especially for those starting out as a pilot or new CFI – Read and Heed!

  2. George Trotter
    George Trotter says:

    I am responding to the entry above by my very good friend, Craig Warner. We’ve known one another since we were student aircrew members together at Castle AFB, CA in the spring/summer of 1975: he the co-pilot; I the navigator on the B-52(H)—the models that are still in the active inventory of the USAF!
    My memory of the subject flight is somewhat different from Craig’s. First of all, Col. Welch, the instructor pilot pulled what I learned to be the “mixture control” in the left engine. As for my heading control, Col. Welch had instructed me to turn into and away from the bad engine to get a “feel” for the difference in how the aircraft reacted. I was also instructed to maintain altitude and airspeed but the density altitude of our nominal ~6,500’ MSL altitude (I figure it was somewhere between 9,500 and 10,000.) exceeded the airplanes capabilities. To do engine out maneuvers, we were supposed to maintain 3,000 clearance AGL. That proved to be impossible.
    As we got below 3,000 AGL, the Colonel pushed in the mixture control on the left engine but it refused to start much less unfeather. After several unsuccessful attempts, Col. Welch instructed me to switch seats with Craig, which we dutifully did. However, nothing availed.
    I don’t recall that the gear were nearly forgotten as we approached touchdown in what I always took to be a pasture; but in any case, it was I who was instructed to exit the aircraft in search of two somethings that were stiff enough to sandwich the faulty prop so as to un-feather it manually. It turned out there were zero trees in the pasture! And I regarded myself as extremely lucky to have found what I took to be two bones from some cow that hadn’t survived some previous winter! It turned out that just as I was passing by the left wingtip with my treasure that the left engine roared to life! I still kept those cow bones as mementos if the day, however, until my second wife finally forced me to throw them out some 15 years ago!
    Meanwhile, the adventure was not over. After landing, we had taxied back to the high portion of the field; and, with both engines now running, Craig and the Colonel were assessing more urgently the length of the field available because at the bottom the field fell off into a gully that was probably 15-20 feet deep and 30-40 feet across. Not only that, but beyond the gully were high-tension power lines! The ground was pretty-well compacted, however. The Colonel instructed me to get out of the aircraft and pace off the field. I walked to the edge of the gully and came up with ~2,250 feet. The Colonel, with just a little uncertainty in his voice, said, “Well, that should be enough!”
    And, it was. We took off, cleared the gully, flew under the power lines, and then pulled up to fly back to RAP! A memorable day…that remains memorable nearly 42 years later!

  3. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    Always interesting to me how two people involved in the same incident can have different recollections of it. Be that as it may, the most important lessons here, I think, are to always be aware of one’s surroundings for that possible need to land; and to always fly the airplane—or as Bob Hoover was quoted as saying, fly the airplane all the way to the accident. I too have landed successfully in a field, but when a single throws a rod, there’s no flying it out.

    • Craig Warner
      Craig Warner says:

      I know you will do well on your rating ride. Your instructors have taught you well, put their professional confidence in you, and deemed you ready for this exciting step in your flying career. No one likes to take a check ride. Relax and go in there with confidence that you are up to the task. You have seen it all, and your examiner will not be throwing you any curveballs. Till the day I retired, every time I had an engine failure, the first thing that went through my mind was “idle foot idle engine.” Keep it in mind and go out there and show everyone what a great pilot you are.

  4. Alspach David
    Alspach David says:

    The instructor in your situation must have been a Beech pilot that thought he had a handful of throttle rather than prop.
    In 1980, I took my multi-engine check ride with the FAA in our BE-50 as there were no DPEs rated in the Twin Bonanza. When it came time for single engine work, the examiner pulled the left prop back and then asked me why I wasn’t responding with rudder.
    My answer was that there wasn’t much thrust reduction from the prop being pulled back.
    His response, “Your airplane, configure for normal flight. You passed, let’s go back.”

  5. cCharlie L.
    cCharlie L. says:

    RE:single engine flight in a Piper Apache. I own a 1957 Apache PA- 23 160. It can maintain level flight on one engine with two people on board, half fuel (50 gal), at 3,000 feet MSL. However, I took instructions in a PA 23 150 and experienced the same issues as in the article (3 SOB). we were about 50 miles from the nearest airport flying over water and the feathered engine would not start/ The engine cools down rapidly when it is shut down. We continued for about 10 minutes, trying to restart. No increase of power on the running engine and a resulting decent of about 300 FPM. The instructor assured me it would start and to keep flying. The engine still would not start and I suggested we head back toward the airport. Reluctantly, the instructor agreed. As we continued home, the engine would not start. We entered the landing pattern at 800 feet MSL. On downwind leg, the engine finally started. Had we stayed in the practice area much longer, we would not have had the same outcome. Also, the Beech B-95 Travelair with it’s 180 HP engines will not only fly on one engine (with 4 people on board), it will give you a modest climb rate of about 200 FPM at sea level.

    One word of caution. All most all small twins will not maintain altitude at gross weight..with one engine out. book figures are usually extrapolated from data obtained using a new aircraft with new engines and flown by experienced test pilots who make several trials to average the data… Always make sure your aircraft’s engines are running well and true before taking flight. know your gross weight and density altitude.

  6. Nate Ballesteros
    Nate Ballesteros says:

    Thanks for sharing! Using the cow rib to unfeather the prop must have been covered in basic training!

  7. George Trotter
    George Trotter says:

    Re my entry above: I would ask that you all keep in mind this episode will have taken place 42 years ago as of 30 September. Craig and I have chuckled about this many times over the years. I honestly cannot account for the….differences….but Craig has—in my opinion—always been a superb pilot. Even as a 2nd Lieutenant “student” co-pilot in the BUFF. On our 3rd training mission, our AC had proven himself well-able to do one of the most important tasks: air refuel. So, the IP—who had to be in the CP’s seat for AR, turned to Craig (occupying the IP’s seat) and asked if he’d like to give it a try. Absolutely, was the immediate response. This necessitated IP getting out of the right seat so that Craig could now occupy it. Then our AC had to get out of the left seat so the IP could superintendent Craig’s work and be ready to take over if necessary. That wasn’t going to be necessary. Craig got settled; the tanker’s boom operator radioed, “Cleared to pre-contact.” Keep in mind, it wasn’t all that unusual for CPs to be unable—on their first try—to get well-stabilized enough in pre-contact to be ordered to the contact position. However, Craig eased us forward and stabilized behind the KC-135. “Cleared to contact position.” The BO soon plugged us and reported, “Toggles engaged.” Craig maintained that status for at least 5 minutes (It might have been a little more.) when the IP—whose eyes were thoroughly “watered”—said he’d seen enough. So, though we have this curious situation regarding the Apache flight, I’m okay with accounting it to the extraordinary passage of time. It may well be that the key thing is when I exited the left seat: before landing in the field or after we’d landed and taxied back to the upper portion of the field. And while I don’t remember the landing gear issue, that too may be accounted to the passage of time. Keep in mind, according to my logbook I’d had 3 sorties in the Apache totaling a little over 5 hours spread over 2 weeks prior to this sortie. That had been interspersed with 7 sorties in a Grumman single as part of my Comm. & Inst. program. I was drinking from the proverbial fire hose.

  8. Marty Martin
    Marty Martin says:

    Would really like to contact Craig to talk Apache strategies as I am the owner of a1956 PA150 and a 1960 PA160. What WAS I thinking!
    An email or phone would be much appreciated.

  9. Bob
    Bob says:

    Sorry to spoil the party but flying out was among the most foolish things I could think one would do. It worked but the aircraft at the least needed an inspection before a takeoff was attempted.

    • George R Kern
      George R Kern says:

      I’m sure the first thing they did after landing was to look the plane over for damage. I know I did when an engine failure in my Bellanca 17-30A forced me to land in a field. The A&P who had just performed the annual, which included replacing the crankcase and crankshaft, diagnosed the problem (his oops), repaired it in the field and I took off from the county road.

    • Craig Warner
      Craig Warner says:

      It is hard to fault your logic. I think we knew that we had not damaged anything on the landing. It was very smooth. We also knew the reason for the engine failure. Once we started the engine and gave it a good warm-up and testing throttle response, we decided to go. If it happens again, I will take your advice

  10. Skip Stagg
    Skip Stagg says:

    Gentlemen, as a long time CFI in many motor airplanes, I have instructed in Beech and the Piper Apache. The Travel air was a wonderful aircraft I instructed and did 135 in the B-95 B and D models. The Piper, well in all fairness, it was tired and employed the 150 engines. One trick I used to unfeather the prop, I did not see it talked about here, is to use the starter to rotate the prop allowing it to rotate fast enough to unfeather in the relative wind. (of course you moved the prop control out of the feathered position before doing so) With respect the Travel air’s throttles they are in the center, while newer aircraft and Pipers are on the left.
    Loved the story,


  11. Roca
    Roca says:

    Glad it turned out fine but two things to discuss. 1. I have been taught if landing off airport in a retractible, to keep the gear up, to avoid flipping in a soft field. 2. I don’t think I would try to fly it out after this happened to me. Best to leave it a day, consider the options, and decide what to do later. Anyone have thoughs about this?

    • Craig Warner
      Craig Warner says:

      I am glad to tell the story. This flying event occurred in the middle 1970s. I was assigned to fly B-52 bombers at Kincheloe AFB in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Kincheloe AFB sits midway between Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island. The island was always a welcome getaway, and we could rent planes and fly down to the island in less than an hour. One evening two other officers rented a C172 and a Cessna Cardinal for the three of us to fly to Mackinac Island for dinner.
      Being military in all respects, we decided to make it a formation flight. I was in the number two plane (Cardinal) and flew fingertip with the C172. We maintained a high altitude to cross the several miles of open water to the island. The lead plane made the advisory radio call, and we flew down initial (runway heading at pattern altitude) and pitched out halfway down the runway to the left to enter downwind. When the lead pitched out, I counted to 5, entered a 25 to30 degrees left turn, and rolled out on downwind behind the lead plane.
      I pulled the throttle back to reduce speed. At that point, the engine started to sputter, and I had no control of the engine. The prop was still turning but very slowly, and the engine was running very rough. The engine instruments indicated no real thrust. I made a MAYDAY CALL! The lead plane did not hear the call and continued its pattern. I was in an excellent position to make the engine out landing. I flew a shortened pattern rolling out on a short final.
      The lead plane had landed and, as we briefed, continued to the far end of the runway. I had plenty of stopping distance. We touched down, applied a small amount of breaks, and exited the runway right in front of the airport office. We called the FBO back at SSM. He and a mechanic flew down and repaired the plane while we were having dinner. There was a malfunction with the carburetor (please do not ask me to get technical), which caused it to run rich. We returned to SSM without further incident. Dinner was excellent, and I believe we let the company mechanic fly the repaired plane home. Always have a plan B and be ready to act on it. I race sailboats every summer from Chicago to Mackinac Island. I never tire of its charm, and I always swing by to see the airport and reminisce about my Mackinac Island landing.

  12. Paul Johnson
    Paul Johnson says:

    If you’ve ever stood on farmland & unfeathered a prop with bovine ribs…you’ve qual’d as a Redneck Pilot!! I LOVE these “there I was” tutorials! Alas that wives don’t always understand our “treasures!”

    I understand their probable rational for proceeding with takeoff, by virtue of knowing the exact cause of the failure mode, effecting a simple fix & then ensuring via ground run that the powerplant was “open for business.”

    Having a “fresh” & qualified crewmember to fly it out is certainly a godsend. I might’ve hesitated to fly it out with all 3 aboard, but they were there, not me. Knowing your terrain & the aircraft’s capabilities is not optional in becoming Old Pilots.

    My favorite key phrases from the article:
    Be in charge—do not let the plane be in charge of you.
    … controlling the airplane.
    …your first objective is to fly the airplane!
    Maintain situational awareness.
    Learn your plane… !!
    … and fly a lot!!
    Enroute, keep up with emergency landing fields! ( ie. think like an Ag pilot )
    Flying is no place for amateur decisions…

    Being a student of Bob Hoover is always a plus.


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