9 min read

I remember the first time my primary flight instructor lectured me on the importance of proper flight planning. “Don’t put the airplane too far from a safe landing area; you never know when you may need it,” he would say to me as I used my plotter to pick VFR checkpoints. “When you lose that engine, you become a glider—and a pretty inefficient one. Give yourself a fighting chance.” I’m paraphrasing, but any good instructor will teach to that affect. After I became a flight instructor, I would instill the very same principles of good situational awareness.

The flight school I teach at has multiple locations within the United States. Throughout my two years with the company, it has been common to swap aircraft from one location to another. Sometimes that’s from Miami to New York or other city pairs. The flights are scheduled to be dual instruction, likely with a student working toward an instrument or commercial certificate. This offers a great opportunity to add some real-world cross-country time to their logbook. I was approached last minute on a Thursday, to do an airplane swap from Pompano Beach Airpark (PMP) in Florida to Morristown Municipal (MMU) in New Jersey. Feeling lucky to have been asked, I jumped on the opportunity to get some flight time.

Hilton Head

A 1000-mile cross country is a great way to learn some real world skills and visit new places.

My student for the flight was named Mitch. He was a younger guy working on the later parts of his commercial single engine certificate. I had known Mitch from seeing him around the flight school, but never actually had him as a student throughout his time with us.

We were set to depart for New Jersey on Friday, May 14th. Mitch and I agreed to leave as early as practical, so we set a departure time around 7 am to give us an edge on the day. It is always a great call to allow extra time for any unforeseen scenarios, especially when you are trying to fly a light, single engine aircraft over 1,000 nautical miles in a day. Our weather all the way up the east coast was mostly clear skies, as a nice springtime high was overhead.

Meeting that morning we were surprised to find the school had made a late day schedule adjustment and put a solo student pilot in our airplane for a few hours. We made some flight plan adjustments due to what turned into a delay of over two hours. This put us behind the ball, but it was still early enough to attempt being in Jersey by 9 pm. Worst case, we would land short of our destination and finish the next morning.

We were wheels up out of Pompano at 10:02, IFR en route to our first stop in Hilton Head, South Carolina (HXD). Our flight to Hilton Head was rather routine up the East Coast, with nice views of Florida, over Georgia, and into South Carolina. The weather was severe clear with gusty winds out of the east for our landing on runway 03 at 13:35. Our fuel stop there was enjoyable, to say the least, with a quick bite to eat at a local BBQ joint.

We departed Hilton Head at 15:03 on our way to grab more fuel in Norfolk, Virginia (ORF). This leg was also uneventful, but slightly turbulent with us flying over well-known Myrtle Beach. We landed in Virginia at 18:23 for more fuel before the last leg. Once we left Virginia at 18:58, we knew our approximate ETA in New Jersey was going to be 21:00. Heading into Pennsylvania at dusk, we got vectored directly over Philadelphia, which provided some stellar views of the historic American city.


A great view of Philadelphia at dusk.

Once we arrived in Morristown we were greeted by a fellow instructor who works for our company. He was friendly and I asked which aircraft we had the pleasure of taking back with us to Florida. His response: “Ha! Luckily you are taking NXXXHG! Good riddance!”

I looked at him confused. “Sorry?” I said, not sure what he was implying.

“Oh no, nothing bad. It’s just that XHG and I go a ways back. She runs fine!” Still unsure of his relief the airplane would no longer be a part of their fleet, our Uber arrived and brought us to a nearby hotel.

Early the next morning, after much-needed sleep, Mitch and I made it to the school. We wanted to make good time on Saturday, so we shot for an ETD of 07:40. I was greeted by three instructors, who had asked me which aircraft I was flying back to Florida. “We’re flying NXXXHG back down,” I said.

The three expressed their relief. “Oh thank God we’re getting rid of that plane!” one exclaimed.

At this point, I was annoyed with the obvious glee that this airplane would no longer be around. “What the heck? Why is everyone so glad this airplane is leaving?” I asked rather abruptly.

“You know it’s nothing, just a quirky airplane is all,” one replied.

“Okay, well you do know I have to fly this airplane over 1,000 miles the next day or two, right?” I said.

“The airplane is in perfect working order,” I was assured.

After a thorough preflight inspection, and an extra quart of oil, at 07:47 we were wheels up out of New Jersey. Our southeast-bound turn to the Colts Neck VOR gave us a spectacular view of early morning Manhattan. New York departure was not as busy as I had always imagined it would be, I thought to myself. Our first airport of choice was Wilmington, North Carolina (ILM) for more fuel. This would end up being our longest leg of the trip at almost 450nm. We touched down at 12:10. Sure pays to depart early!


Always stop for good barbecue.

The next leg was to St. Simons (SSI), an island on Georgia’s coast that has quite the reputation amongst pilots for excellent barbecue. Stopping around 14:20, we filled our stomachs and the fuel tanks then made our departure at 15:07 for the final leg home. The rumors are true—the BBQ rocked!

Satisfied with our progress, in part due to a modest tailwind, we were expecting touchdown in Pompano at 18:00. As we made our way down the east coast of Florida, all our familiar airports were now under us and in our sights. Passing over Melbourne, we got switched to Palm Beach Approach—so close! Palm Beach is essentially the last approach controller before Pompano.

“Afternoon Palm Beach Approach, NXXXHG level four thousand,” I checked in.

“NXXXHG good evening, Palm Beach altimeter 30.07. Expect a route change in one five miles, direct Pahokee VOR, then SHANK intersection to Pompano,” he stated. Our filed IFR route was right along the coast on V3, TRV, and then the PBI VOR of Palm Beach, but as expected the controller advised us of a routing change that would put us west of Palm Beach International, over Pahokee—right off lake Okeechobee’s coast. I told the controller we would just cancel IFR and stay on for flight following along the coastline. This not only saved us some time, but it also provided one or two more airport options for landing if it became necessary.

We made a course change southeasterly to join the coastline about 15 miles south of Melbourne International, essentially keeping us on our original IFR filed route. Florida’s east coast is littered with class D and G airports, plus it offers a welcoming view of our great state. We descended from our 4,000 foot cruise altitude to a VFR one of 3,500. Everything was looking nice as we were now approximately 30 minutes out—right on time!

After passing by Fort Pierce (FPR), we experienced a large loss of power and severe vibrations from the engine. Soon after came a petroleum-based smell. Oil? I looked and saw no engine indications of excessive oil temperature, pressure, or exhaust gas. Unfortunately, this aircraft was not equipped with optional cylinder head temperature gauges. I set the mixture for full rich and took the airplane over from the student. “My controls,” I stated. “Your controls,” replied my student, following up with my confirmation. Something was massively wrong here.


That’ll do it.

“Approach XHG needs the nearest airport.”

“Who needs nearest?” Approach queried.

“XHG. We are experiencing severe engine roughness. I need the nearest airport,” I stated.

“XHG, roger. You have Fort Pierce 8.8 miles north, and Stuart.”

“I’ll take Fort Pierce,” I decided.

“XHG roger, turn right heading 330,” ATC instructed. As this happened, I was focused on maintaining positive control of the airplane and trying to maintain my valuable altitude. Whatever had happened wasn’t immediately clear to me. Maybe I lost a magneto? Maybe the alternator belt snapped and it is whipping around? Volts and amps all good.

As I turned north the vibration was worsening, even with my small power reduction. “This engine is about to fail,” I said to myself. I was running at around 2,100 RPM, which I found to be the smoothest power setting but also not so low that it would result in excessive altitude loss.

At this point, we were headed direct to Ft. Pierce. I was still trying my best to have the airplane maintain altitude, and picked out a landing spot in case the engine quit altogether. My student sat quietly and assisted with finding the airport.

“XHG do you need emergency services?” asked approach.

“Negative, but I may,” I replied. The airplane wasn’t getting any happier. The engine was struggling, misfiring, and way out of balance, so I traded altitude for performance and maintained around 85 knots.

We made the frequency change over to Fort Pierce tower, who also asked if we needed emergency services. “Not yet,” I said.

“You can have runway 10R or 32, your choice,” he stated.

“I’ll take straight-in 32, thanks,” I said. At this point, I was at 2000 feet, on a 4-mile final. I cautiously began to descend, feeling assured I could make the field. The gusty crosswind landing was smooth, and we taxied over to the FBO.

After much deliberation and inspecting, I was able to spot a crack in the cylinder wall of cylinder number one. “Well, that’ll do it,” I said while showing my student. We were glad to have our feet on the ground.

I couldn’t help but think back to how important the decision to remain over the coast turned out to be. If we had stayed IFR and went west of Palm Beach, it may have put airport options just that much farther away, and I’ll never know with the partial performance I was getting from the engine if an airport landing would have been in the cards. It sure pays to know where you are, where you are going, and how you plan on getting there.

Stephan Vlachos
Latest posts by Stephan Vlachos (see all)
29 replies
  1. Tony H
    Tony H says:

    I started my flying in an C140 from an airbase in morroco our cross countries were over desolate country almost no alternative runways. Always looking for a flat piece of land. Hot air thermals taking me up 500 feet then down 500ft an more exciting events too nurmerous to write about now.

  2. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Another reason why Florida is awesome and why we are spoiled in general aviation. Abundant airfields but also beaches on the whole peninsula, flat pastures inland, and more par 5 fairways to count. Fly high enough and keep your situational awareness and there will most likely be a field to glide to and hopefully your can tell your own “Florida Man” story.

  3. Dorothy English
    Dorothy English says:

    Thank you for the excellent article. I find it extremely helpful in consistently learning so as to remain being a safe and confident

  4. Jim Price
    Jim Price says:

    I am not sure why you would not declare and emergency. Maintains your security,should this not work out
    as well as ground assistance when you got there. Cost is nothing.

    • Rick
      Rick says:

      Lots of paper work to fill out if you declare an emergency. The author is obviously an experienced pilot and knew that declaring an emergency was not necessary ‘yet’. He said that a couple of times. He wasn’t against declaring an emergency and would have if it had been totally necessary. Remember, he had already made the decision not to follow the IFR route because he didn’t totally trust the airplane. He’s obviously a good decision maker. So perhaps, since we weren’t in the cockpit, we should trust his judgement and not criticize his decision.

      • Jim Walters
        Jim Walters says:

        Rick, apparently you have never declared an emergency, or needed to.
        Good for you. No argument here, but, There is usually no paperwork, (except the local tower might ask for a narrative) and the FAA might want one but they have to request it and in my 50 years of flying they usually do not, if the plane is back on the ramp. and can be flown again.

        The reason for declaring is not so much to help YOU, but to permit ATC controllers to give you priority. Technically, they cannot move everyone out of your way unless you say the E word or squawk 7700. Hinting around at it, saying “I may be having a problem here” does not give them that authority.

        Airport firemen are bored to tears and are delighted to jump up and come out to watch you land safely. That’s why they took the job.

        After nearly 6,000 hours and five engine failures (mostly re-started) and one total comm/nav outage IMC (in a jet) I have no hesitation at all to declare — it is not an admission of error or weakness, it is simply alerting ATC that I have a problem (that may get worse really quickly) and so they can be aware of my situation now and not just after I get really busy.

        • Rick
          Rick says:

          Hi Jim,

          I stand corrected. Thanks for clarifying that. I’m long retired now, can’t pass a physical, but it’s fun to stay in touch with those still going. Only once did I come close to declaring an emergency. That was about 45 years ago and it was shortly after take-off and the plane just wasn’t gaining altitude. It was Christmas day and I asked unicom if there was a mechanic at the field. They said no and asked if I wanted to declare an emergency. I declined, quickly found the problem and continued on the flight.

          Thanks again!

      • JOhn T
        JOhn T says:

        Paperwork is minimal to none if you declare “Emergency”. Get that myth out of your head and bury it!

        I’ve experienced four engine failures (3 with partial power, one at night, one in IMC on an IFR flight plan) and one total engine failure at night. I’ve landed on a US highway (the night total engine failure) and at an airport just south of the California border (in Mexico) on my partial power loss night landing. I have yet to file a single page of paper work with anyone or anywhere, nor a single byte of digital forms to explain these emergency events.

        DECLARE “Emergency” when any abnormal stuff with potential to quickly go to heck occurs!!! Don’t dither. DECLARE! In some cases (like anight landing on a highway following an engine failure, ATC may declare for you if you are busy. That, by the way, is just another of the many very good reasons to fly IFR or at least VFR Flight Following every time we fly outside of the traffic pattern of a towered airport! Avigate, Navigate, Communicate rules… every time.

      • Lane Hardison
        Lane Hardison says:

        I will have to disrespectfully have to say that you Have Never declared an emergency, because had you, you would know the BS myth of lots of paper work.
        I have declared an emergency on Jets under FAR 135 and 91 from bird ingestion into engines, low oil pressure on a jet engine at FL410, Flight Controls that froze, pressurization issues.
        One flight in a Lear 25 I suffered a complete electrical failure at night. None of these required any paperwork. Only a fool does not declare when a situation like this comes up. Can ATC fix it no. But they will get you all they assistance that they possibly can. And oh ATC can declare an emergency for you without you requesting it.
        When they asked souls on board and fuel if you did not ask for it they did. Been there got that tee shirt.

      • totally agree. Declare an emergency anytime 100% of your engine(s) are failing. Can always cancel the emergency later.
        totally agree. Declare an emergency anytime 100% of your engine(s) are failing. Can always cancel the emergency later. says:

        Wrong. There is absolutely zero paperwork needed when declaring an emergency UNLESS the FAA requests it. I’ve declared a number of times in my military/airline/civilian career and never filed any FAA paperwork at all.

    • Jim Walters
      Jim Walters says:

      YES! Jim Price.

      This guy did a good job with this emergency, except for one thing:

      IF you are flying a single engine airplane and not in a traffic pattern and the engine is yelling at you “ANY MINUTE NOW YOU WILL BE A GLIDER” that is when you declare an emergency – not to help you so much as to permit the tower controllers to clear everyone out of your way, and be ready with equipment if you need it.

      If the circumstance of that flight- engine failing, structural vibration (and maybe a fire on top of all that) … if that is not a bona fide emergency, please tell me what is one

    • Because declaring an emergency is for an emergency. not what he had going on...
      Because declaring an emergency is for an emergency. not what he had going on... says:

      “Don’t put the airplane too far from a safe landing area; you never know when you may need it,”
      If an instructor had ever started teaching me with that statement as a important lesson? I would probably have quit flying as a student pilot.
      With all due respect, that’s a terrible impression to give student pilots, and instills a thought that single engine airplanes are unreliable. And that couldnt be further from the truth.
      Usually the guys making that statement, are the guys (instructors etc) who are recently flying twins, and want to blabber on inaccurately about how “single engine aircraft are unreliable”, “No one should fly IFR or at night, in single engine aircraft” etc… I find it troublesome there’s an emphasis being made that your aircraft are unreliable or prone to failure, so much so you have to route yourself over places to crash land enroute. Ridiculous.

      I’ve been flying roughly 35 years, hold SEL, IFR rating, MEL, Seaplane.
      Just a couple more points. If you’re comcerned about reliability, to cruise cross country at 3500ft is penny wise and pound foolish. Altitude in your friend. Forget planning your route to have a crash landing field every few miles, you can glide to from 3500 feet! Fly at an appropriate, safe altitude, How about 7500? Or 9500?
      Many single engine planes have good glide ratios, but you say they make “poor gliders”. Actually, no they don’t. A 172 for example, can glide heck, 8 or 10 miles easily, IF your smart, A D flying with the appropriate altitude.
      Lastly, Why were you filing IFR, in severe clear weather? Had you flown VFR the entire route, NJ to FL, it would save you time, money, and give you flexibility in the route, altitudes etc.. As pilots WE make the final important decisions, NOT ATC.

      I don’t mean to come down to hard on you, I understand you’re a relatively new pilot, even though you hold your ratings etc.. Please rethink some of these areas of concern, it may save your life one day. And if you don’t understand the back up reliability built into even light aircraft engines? I suggest you study up. Having a complete engine failure is rare. Very rare. To teach otherwise is to misinform. To train for off field emergency landings is great… Yes.. But to make students believe the aircraft is that unreliable? Big mistake, and just wrong.

  5. Tom
    Tom says:

    During glasnost a Soviet general came to the US to trade stories about “The Great Patriotic War” or what we call WWII. “Da Germans were coming from all directions,” he told the women’s auxiliary. “Des F-ckers coming from the left, dos F-ckers coming from the right and some F-ckers were coming straight down on us”.
    The women were taken aback by the general’s crude language and were beginning to get quite disgruntled. Then the MC stepped in to reassure the crowd. “Ladies, ladies, please… let me explain. A Focker is a type of aircraft built by the Germans during WWII. It was one of Germany’s top fighters”.
    The Russian general nodded his head. “Da, Focker is very good airplane. A very capable fighter… But these F-ckers were flying Messerschmitts”.
    In any aviation story: the type of aircraft matters.
    Not sure if he was trying to protect his company or the manufacturer but everyone knows that Continentals blow jugs.

  6. Ross
    Ross says:

    I also cannot understand why an emergency was not declared when the abnormal engine operation was evident.
    I would be asking for all the help I could get if faced with this situation!

  7. Frank Huber
    Frank Huber says:

    Stephan excellent job handling that emergency! Previous comments about declaring an emergency are spot on. It doesn’t cost you anything and gets you the highest level of support. Best of luck with your flying career.

  8. Christopher Zee-Cheng
    Christopher Zee-Cheng says:

    Great article. I enjoyed reading it.
    I likewise plan my VFR and IFR flights with available airports enroute in mind

  9. Scott Powell
    Scott Powell says:

    Excellent article and a good reminder to always be thinking “where can I put this down” in the event of an engine failure. Part of the checklist you should constantly be running: where is the wind from, where am I, where can I land, where is the nearest airport…

    And never hesitate to declare an Emergency!

  10. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    Perhaps they knew the airplane had issues and wanted to get rid of it before it broke down. As it did for you. I used to fly a Piper Warrior that not many pilots wanted to fly. It didn’t have an intercom, no GPS, and it was a royal pain to get to start. A CFI showed me an alternate way to get it to start, that wasn’t in the POH. After that, i was able to get it to start, usually with one or two revolutions of the prop. I always brought my handheld GPS, and another CFI gave me an old portable intercom. So any time i had a co pilot, i was all good. Sadly, another rental pilot totaled it in a taxi way incident.

  11. Jerry Groendyke
    Jerry Groendyke says:

    First of all, when you have an engine issue, don’t ask for the nearest airport, tell ATC you are turning toward the nearest airport.
    I would never give up altitude when 4 miles from the airport. Hold whatever you can as long as you can. You can always get down. Unless you’re on fire, altitude is your friend. The picture is not cylinder #1.

  12. Jerry Groendyke
    Jerry Groendyke says:

    If you lose oil, oil pressure will drop, oil temp will drop, and egt will drop if engine loses power. Alternator belt failure will not cause engine roughness. If a mag issue is suspected, turn off one at a time. I don’t believe the picture of the cracked cylinder would cause any misfiring or roughness detectable by a pilot. Possibly a slight power loss due to low compression. But the picture shows no staining of oil or exhaust gas, so probably not an issue, until the entire head broke off, when it would be a major issue immediately, with massive loss of oil, power, and good chance of fire.

  13. Dave Stark
    Dave Stark says:

    I can’t help but wonder why the CFI’s in New Jersey thought the aircraft a problem. Perhaps the crack was smaller or was always there causing intermittent engine problems. If so, what kind of maintenance people did they have that would continue to rate the aircraft airworthy. Obviously, something about the aircraft was troubling them enough to happily say good bye to that aircraft. I doubt it was the chipped paint, worn carpet, or loose hand grip. It was something major and not bringing you up to speed on it knowing you were about to put 1000 miles on it is not how the GA pilots I know treat each other. Just seems there is more to the story. I think I might have wanted to look at the maintenance logbook before I went wheels up.

  14. Jim Nardulli
    Jim Nardulli says:

    If you thought maybe a mag problem, why not switch one off at a time to see if that helps? Also, 4 miles out seems like way too soon to give up altitude. And finally, why did you take the controls? Missed a heck of a training opportunity with that student. Not criticizing- you stayed calm and made the field. Just questions that came to mind. Personally, I would have declared.

  15. Keith Jones
    Keith Jones says:

    Great story. While flying my ultra light (300+ hours) I flew from landing area to landing area even when having a destination. I had 6 forced landings with it but only 2 off airport. Only had 2 in a GA aircraft, both on the airport. I still would fly over more favorable terrain, it’s just safer. Besides, 10 more minutes down a road is way better than the 2 weeks it would take to walk out od the swamp under the shorter route.


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