8 min read

This was scheduled to be a routine discovery flight in a Cessna 172, a simple cruise along the coast of the Monterey Bay to show a couple the addiction we call flying. Other than a low-level marine layer running from the ocean to the beginning of the coastline, the sky was clear and the visibility unlimited.

I formed our flight plan, which had us take off from the Monterey Airport and follow the boundary of the marine layer northbound, making sure to always keep sight of the ground below and to the east. Things were cheery in the cockpit as the boyfriend honed his new skills at the controls and the girlfriend joyfully took photos of him and the scenery. I remember thinking to myself “Man, I’m lucky to be in this job”.

After a demonstration of some basic air maneuvers, I decided that it was about time to head back. The last thing I wanted to do was climb to a higher altitude to give them a greater view of the surrounding areas for the trip home. I started the climb from 3,500 feet to the planned altitude of 5,500 feet. This is precisely where the 99% of “bored flying” turned into the 1% of “pure terror.”

The first thing I noticed was the engine RPM sounding a little too low for our conditions. I knew the aircraft was heavy, so I lowered the nose slightly to allow the airspeed to build and see if the engine RPM would return to normal. But nothing changed and I started to get a bad feeling. I leveled off at 3,800 feet to further diagnose the issue when I started to hear and feel them steadily roll back to zero.

I watched as the propeller became stationary and the engine seized to a halt. One glance to the oil pressure indicator showed the needle pegged at zero pressure. It was as if God was my CFI and had given me an impromptu power off landing scenario.

It took me a few seconds to comprehend the emergency that had just unraveled right before me. Internally, I was repeatedly screaming at myself that this was an emergency, and that I had work to do. Eventually, my neurons started firing again and I thought aviate, navigate, communicate and what I needed to do for each.

I immediately started pitching for a best glide of 65 knots and running through my memory items. In flight school, I was required to memorize every emergency checklist, which is a practice I carried over to my work as a CFI. I ran through all the items, paying extra attention to the ones pertaining to fuel and airflow, and attempted an engine restart. The engine cranked for a good 10 seconds to no avail. My heart sank as I realized I was probably going to have to attempt a forced landing.

After establishing with ATC that I had an emergency, I asked for vectors to the nearest airport which was 10 miles to my south. I quickly realized that at my altitude, it was well outside my gliding range and I began looking for suitable spots in front of me to land. I had the marine layer to my right, residential areas straight ahead, and a highway and hills to my left.

I started looking at the highway, but immediately noticed two things I didn’t like. It being a Saturday afternoon in August, there were cars piled up in a traffic jam for as far as I could see, as well as overpasses about every mile. I thought to myself, “is the highway isn’t an option, how about a larger commercial road” and began searching.

I looked at the ground in front of me and all I could see were small roads with medians, cars, houses, and a mall. I could almost feel the fire and pain from the crash that would likely ensue from an attempted landing on any of them. At this point, I had run through all possible landing spots I could see and didn’t like any of them. I was left in a battle with my own emotions. I felt genuinely trapped and out of moves to make. But I then remembered something that my CFI said to me that was a reminder I needed to fight until the bitter end. His quote to me was “as the PIC, it’s your sole responsibility to get the aircraft safely to the ground.”

That was the spark I needed to continue fighting, but the choice I made next was the single toughest one in my 22 years of living. I knew there was a beach to my right, but the reason I hadn’t considered it until now was I couldn’t see it because of the marine layer. And to make a bad situation worse, my vacuum system was long gone since the engine quit. The attitude indicator was tumbling along with the directional gyro. All of this meant it would be extremely tough to keep the airplane correctly oriented and not crash while flying through the marine layer.

ForeFlight synthetic vision

The backup AHRS guided me through the marine layer.

I thought to myself that there must be some sort of backup I can utilize to get me through, and I was right. My iPad that was mounted on the right seat window could be turned into a standby attitude indicator with altitude, airspeed and heading indications, all thanks to the Sentry Plus ADS-B unit I had with its internal AHRS (attitude and heading reference system) and backup GPS. I turned towards the beach, got the standby instruments displayed and started my precarious descent into the marine layer.

Even with these standby instruments, I knew I needed all the help I could get if I was going to pull this landing off. I told ATC I was now in the clouds and needed help with directional orientation to get to the beach. Luckily, they told me my current heading would take me out over the water, which meant I could intersect the beach. I made one final attempt to restart the engine, however, in doing this I inadvertently caused another problem. As if to rub salt in the wound, I watched both radios and GPS instantly shut off as the electrical system in the airplane completely died. All the cranking of the engine had drained the battery!

As much as I found it annoying, I also knew it didn’t matter when it came time to make the landing. This left me with a powerless (both in thrust and electronics) airplane quietly gliding through zero visibility murk, not knowing exactly how I’d end up on the other side. I knew that if I wanted to make the beach, I’d have to make a blind guess as to when to turn and line up with it, and so I did my best to do exactly that.

After what was the longest few minutes of my life, I finally broke out of the layer at about 400 feet AGL. But all I could see was open ocean and I thought I had misjudged the turn and would now have to ditch the airplane. Not a second later, I see the beach appear to my left and I quickly yank the yoke to get lined up with the shore. Through all these battles that made up this emergency, I finally felt like I had a win. I could now see where I wanted to land, but there was one last battle I had yet to fight – not hitting any beachgoers as I made my landing.

I like to think this is where I had a little help from above, as the stretch of beach I was already aimed for was cleared just enough for me to touchdown, rollout and come to a stop without hitting anyone. As my last act in being the PIC of the flight, I made sure my passengers were not injured at all and we stumbled out of the plane as people
rushed over to check on us.

Airplane on beach
Rescuers by airplane

When I debriefed this incident, I realized there are a few important takeaways. The first being just how important it is to take emergency procedures training seriously. This one alone put me through my paces and demanded I draw on all my knowledge from flight training and experience as a CFI. The second is no matter how bad your situation gets, you need to fight until the bitter end. I don’t want to think about how this would have ended if I had allowed myself to continue to succumb to my emotions when things seemed impossible. The third and final, is to be mindful about exactly where you fly. You should always leave yourself a way out, and in my case, that would be a suitable place to land in an emergency that you can see. I now include that in my personal minimums when I do these flights.

All of this is to say, I’m incredibly thankful for the training I received and the instructors that passed me their invaluable wisdom. One piece of wisdom I can now pass along is that as a pilot, training to proficiency is paramount, because in situations like these where things go wrong, a pilot does not rise to the occasion, they fall to the level of their own training.

Truck by airplane on beach
Matt Keane
Latest posts by Matt Keane (see all)
35 replies
  1. Mike
    Mike says:

    Instructed in San Diego for years and can relate. Had many conversations about this exact scenario.

    While this situation sucks, one thing to remember when using a shoreline as an emergency landing spot:

    1.) with an engine failed nobody is going to hear you coming.
    2.) with a marine layer nobody is going to see you coming.

    This risk of hitting (killing) a pedestrian is extremely high when using a beach. While busy roads aren’t ideal, at least people in cars are in a metal box with seatbelts and airbags.

    Glad it all worked out.

    Reply
  2. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    Great job!
    Two lessons from your experience:
    1. Assume that you may have to enter IMC even when you are conducting a VFR flight in good weather. As an example, although it didn’t happen to you, an engine failure that results in oil all over the windscreen can create instant “IMC” on a VMC day.
    2. Always have an attitude instrument that can operate totally independent of the aircraft power and vacuum systems. Once you lost vacuum and then all electrical power you had no partial panel guidance available.

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Thank you Kenny! I absolutely agree with both your points. I wouldn’t even consider flying without my sentry plus now that I understand how vital it can potentially be. That and staying IFR current for situations where, as you mentioned, you might have to go into IMC unplanned.

      Reply
  3. Lee Dalton
    Lee Dalton says:

    One thing that struck me about this story is how much credit you apparently owe to your passengers. Can you imagine how much more complicated it would have instantly become if one of them had panicked and started screaming or even worse? It may seem a bit overdramatic, but taking a moment to include some passenger briefing regarding how to handle a possible emergency might pay off.

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Lee,
      You’re absolutely right, the passengers did the best thing possible in their situation. I did give them the S.A.F.E.T.Y. briefing before we departed, and made sure they knew they did the right thing before we parted ways.

      Reply
  4. David Kendall
    David Kendall says:

    Awesome story! I was on the beach that day, camping at Manresa. I didn’t see the landing but I saw the plane on the shore later that afternoon and as a student pilot (PPL now) I was very impressed with the condition of the airplane, sky totally socked in and wondering how the pilot pulled that off. Thank you for telling this story!

    Reply
  5. MICHAEL KLEIN
    MICHAEL KLEIN says:

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Excellent training results in excellent outcomes. Included with my instructions with passengers aboard prior to taxi, is demonstrating how to unbuckle their seat belts and release the door handle. In your scenario, both doors should have been open slightly to allow egress in the event of the fuselage buckling on impact.
    Inform your passengers of the anticipated noise from the open doors to allay further increase in their already present anxiety.

    Reply
    • Robert mirphy
      Robert mirphy says:

      Interesting Mike, but if I was landing on the beach I would leave the doors closed because I believe in a lot of accidents when the door is open it causes a weak folding point in the fuselage as if the doors were closed it would not fold as easy ‍♂️

      Reply
      • Michael Klein
        Michael Klein says:

        Hi Robert:
        When landing on wet sand in with tricycle gear, there is a tendency for the nose wheel to dig into the sand, unless the pilot was able to “grease the landing “ and allow the forward speed to dissipate before lowering the nose. This creates a lot of stress at the firewall and can bend the fuselage along the front edges of the door frame and the hinges. It’s less problematic in a taildragger which are designed for this type of landing surface.

        Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Michael,
      As you mentioned I also include instructions on the operation of the seat belt and door as part of the safety briefing. I have to admit, in the heat of the moment I didn’t think to crack the doors, but it’s certainly a good idea to in that situation. Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Greg,
      I wish I could say, but I don’t have an official answer on that beyond the oil leak causing the engine to fail.

      Reply
  6. Jacobo de Boer
    Jacobo de Boer says:

    Way back in 1980 when I was a student pilot in Reading, PA one of the CFII’s asked if I would like to join him and his student for a training flight in actual IMC conditions. At 3000’ in the clouds with bases around 600’ and the temperature around 50 F, the engine of the C172 started sputtering. Without a second of hesitation the instructor pulled the carb heat on, and (I will never forget his grin when he looked at me sitting in the back seat) said: ‘Carburator ice!’ The engine lost a bit more power and then came back alive. Now every time I read something like this I think carburetor ice, even though it could be something totally different…

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Jacobo,
      Always good learning experience when you get carb icing for the first time. Even though I’ve had it multiple times now, it always grabs my attention a little more than it used to now.

      Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Dick,
      I suspect this would’ve happened if I had touched down in the looser compacted sand higher up on the beach. I landed just a few feet up from the water line where the sand was more compacted, and this combined with using the soft field landing technique, allowed the plane to stay upright and roll to a stop.

      Reply
  7. Alan S Toby
    Alan S Toby says:

    Great story, Matt, kept me on the edge of my seat wondering how you would get out of the situation, even knowing it must have a happy ending because you lived to write about it. But there’s something that doesn’t quite make sense. “I watched as the propeller became stationary and the engine seized to a halt. One glance to the oil pressure indicator showed the needle pegged at zero pressure.” Normally, when an engine seizes, it’s stopped by internal parts melting and fusing together. The fact that your engine could be cranked after it died suggests some other type of damage killed it. The oil pressure gauge would always read zero once the engine stopped, so maybe the story wasn’t worded exactly as it happened? Did the aircraft owner have the engine disassembled to get a forensic analysis of the failure?
    I’m also wondering how the airplane got back to an airport — even if a new engine could be installed on the spot, taking off from the beach would have been hard because of the drag of the sand. Maybe it had to be hoisted onto a flatbed and trucked to the nearest airport?

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Alan,
      It could’ve been the case that the engine didn’t exactly seize after it quit the first time. It just seemed like the appropriate way to describe it after how quickly it came to a stop and the fact that oil was leaking from the bottom of the engine cowling in the aftermath. The plane was partially disassembled (wings and prop) and trucked off the beach to the maintenance hangar. Still waiting on an official diagnosis as to what caused the oil leak.

      Reply
  8. Bert Aagesen
    Bert Aagesen says:

    All my flying life in a single engine airplane I keep looking and asking “where do I go, where do I go?” in case of an engine failure!
    Excellent work by the pilot! The aircraft did not nose over because he landed as slowly as he could, another show of proficiency!

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Robert,
      As far as I know it was an oil leak that caused the engine to fail. I don’t have an official answer on what caused the leak, but I’d be happy to provide an update when I find out.

      Reply
  9. Mary (Skip) Brown
    Mary (Skip) Brown says:

    This is an “On the edge of my seat” story. I love happy endings. My story, North to Alaska, also in this publication, had a few moments of “what if” & “what now” and since I’m not a pilot, I trusted my husband who was the pilot, knowing he had good training and skills. Our story also had a happy ending!

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Thank you Mary! Alaska is definitely a place you’d want to prepare for with good training. I hope to do some flying out there one day soon!

      Reply
  10. Mike Dalecki
    Mike Dalecki says:

    Great writeup–I always learn a lot when I read these.

    I was wondering about the passengers….what was their reaction to all this? And did either of them decide to pursue lessons, or was once enough?

    Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Mike,
      The passengers were unfortunately turned away from the prospect of pursuing any sort of flight training afterwards. Even though they performed admirably by not panicking during the emergency, they were visibly shaken once we were on the ground.

      Reply
    • Matt Keane
      Matt Keane says:

      Grant,
      Absolutely agree. That and backup systems or a “plan b” incase your primary ones become inop for any reason. Never hurts to add that level of safety!

      Reply
  11. Bob Mitchell
    Bob Mitchell says:

    Good story but it also begs the need to get to the root cause of the failure…. Given the plane probably had its 100 hour inspection, that preflight checked the oil, that the A&P secured the oil filter with safety wire properly and there was no vibration warning What caused the incident ???

    Reply
  12. bruce adornato
    bruce adornato says:

    Between this event and recalling the Ghibli Glider when a silent 767 descended onto an abandoned runway populated with dragstrip car racers, I think that a bottled gas airhorn might be a nice addition
    on the nose of a small plane. Could be useful for critters like deer on the runway as well.

    Reply

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