Editor’s Note: Mack McKinney’s account of his engine failure over Kentucky originally appeared in the July 2012 edition of EAA’s Sport Aviation.
The well-worn Cessna 152 was new to the rural Maryland air strip’s rental lineup. I rented the airplane for a springtime cross-country trip to Kentucky and launched into the summer air. There was a lot of thermal activity, and the light 152 sometimes rolled 45-60 degrees as strong updrafts caught a wing. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but this likely contributed to the emergency that was to follow.
About two hours’ flight time after refueling in West Virginia, my destination of Owensboro, Kentucky, came into view on the horizon just 12 miles away. As I dialed in the tower frequency, the cockpit fell silent. Prop-loafing, heart stopping engine failure. My training kicked in (thank you, Tom Davis). I added carb heat (late, I know), checked the fuel selector (should have an hour’s fuel still in the tanks), flipped through the left and right mags, and pushed the mixture knob into full-rich. No change. Then about 10 seconds later the engine surged back to life.
When the soft field is really soft, the right technique is important. Whew, maybe a little water in the fuel, I told myself. Then the engine sputtered again, twice, and roared back to normal rpm. I pondered my options: I could continue on toward the airport, but what if the problem under the engine cowling was about to cause an engine fire? Or what if I was out of fuel! I hadn’t kept close track of my time aloft, so was it possible that I was running out of fuel? There were no farm fields between me and those distant run ways, just subdivisions of houses. And I had heard about too many pilots who had hoped they could make the airport and passed up several acceptable landing areas, only to slam into trees or houses short of the airport. So I promised myself that I would set it down if that engine sputtered even one more time. I told myself aloud to just relax – – –engines had coughed on me before.
As if on cue, the engine died again.
I had just passed a cornfield approximately 1,000 feet long, but at the far end of that field were big towers and high-tension power lines that draped across the field. I didn’t see a better option, so I left the flaps up and headed toward the field in a sweeping 180-degree turn.
When the soft field is really soft, the right technique is important. I was a little fast on short final, but not nearly as fast as I was about to be. At about 200 feet AGL the engine suddenly restarted at full power! In preparation for the landing I had unlatched the doors and tightened my seat belt, but I had left the fuel on, the mags hot, and the throttle full-in! As designed, the airplane started a climb, and the landing spot I had chosen began slipping by underneath me. The power lines loomed straight ahead, and I made a split-second decision to use that engine power for a soft-field landing. I added full flaps, pulled the power back to get about 1700 rpm, raised the nose, and eased down, feeling for the ground with my butt. The tires slipped into the soft dirt and I eased the yoke back to keep the nose gear and prop from digging in to the ground. The dirt was so soft that the wheels sank down to their axles and the airplane rolled maybe 150 feet. I was down!
The old Cessna was undamaged. I knew there had to be water in the fuel, and finding it would exonerate me from any accusations of carb ice or other aircraft mismanagement that caused this cornfield landing. I began rocking the wings with a vengeance and draining fuel from the wing sumps. After 10 minutes of testing, having found no water, I used a farmer’s phone to call the FBO at Owensboro and went back to draining fuel from the wings and looking (unsuccessfully) for water in the fuel. No water but some red strands appeared in fuel from the right tank.
An A&P and his helper arrived from the airport FBO about 30 minutes later, and it didn’t take long to find the problem: a mass of red goop in the fuel collator, apparently the remains of a red shop rag. Left in a fuel tank by a mechanic long ago, it had finally disintegrated. The updrafts that rocked my wings so dramatically earlier that day had dislodged the debris, and it was sucked into the fuel line, ending up in the gas collator. The engine had died of fuel starvation and restarted periodically each time a little fuel managed to get through to the carb.
After cleaning the lines and adding fresh fuel I needed four attempts to get the air plane airborne. With no rain for almost two months, the soil was dust and it took full power to taxi the airplane at all. Only by taxiing back and forth in the ruts the wheels made and then skipping across the tops of corn rows was I able to bounce the old airplane into the air. But as if to make up for its earlier refusal to fly, now the 152 would not be denied. It was climbing like a rocket, and I suddenly remembered that I did not want to climb! I needed to be well under 50 feet altitude or I would hit the power lines! A determined shove forward on the yoke, and I passed beneath some very nasty looking black cables.
I learned several things from this episode:
1) Practice engine-out landings frequently. If you fly alone, force yourself to pull the power on random flights, at random times. Best glide speed and the cockpit actions to make it hap pen must become automatic, muscle-memory tasks. Otherwise you may not do them properly when all hell breaks loose.
2) With an intermittent engine, it is better to make a precautionary landing in a good field than to be forced down in a residential area. And once you decide that a precautionary landing is the prudent thing to do, pull the power to idle, shut off the fuel and the mags, and land it!
3) Tell ATC what you are doing. If I had been talking to Center, getting traffic advisory service (which I always do now), they would have had a very close approximation of my location. This could have dramatically shortened the time it would have taken to rescue me had that been necessary.
4) Polish your common sense and then use it. Learn to estimate runway lengths by looking from one end of every runway to the other end and then looking at the airport diagram showing runway length. Then say aloud, “So that is what 2,000 feet [or what ever] looks like.” Do the same on downwind to unfamiliar fields. And as you pass airports while enroute, compare what you see out the windscreen to the distance out to the pointer on your portable GPS, so your ability to estimate distances stays sharp.
5) Know your fuel state. I should never have needed to question the amount of fuel in my tanks. I should have known. I don’t know exactly how much fuel I drained trying to find water. And I don’t know how much the mechanics drained (they never said), I may have been about to run that airplane out of fuel! By forcing me down in a good landing field, maybe the rag in the fuel system saved my life instead of threatening it. So pay as much attention to the clock as you do the sectional. Always write down your departure time, always know your aircraft’s fuel consumption at any given power setting and altitude, and when you reach your fuel limited time, minus about an hour for reserves, land.
6) And lastly, before you rent an airplane to somebody, do a thorough inspection of the fuel tanks. Shop rags do not move through fuel systems very well and can cause unnecessary sphincter-tightening.