8 min read

My entire description of this event implies that I had lots of time for forming judgments and making my decisions. But the reality is that when you’re only 35 feet or so above the ground, your time to react, make a plan, then put that plan into action is extremely limited. I also found it surprising how many thoughts can run through your mind and be processed in such a short amount of time. I even concede that my recollections could be suspect due to the stress of the moment and compressed time frame. They could very well be proven incorrect by the time the final NTSB report is published.


Veterans Day began as a beautiful Saturday morning, so a few of us had planned on flying to breakfast.  In preparation for the flight, I performed a normal preflight, checking fuel quantity, sumping the tanks, checking the oil, etc.  I performed the engine start, taxi, and takeoff using fuel from the header tank.  The startup was normal with normal oil pressure.  I ran the engine in front of  the hangar for about 10 – 15 minutes waiting for the oil temperature to rise. It took about five minutes to taxi toward the runway, and then another five to seven minutes for the run-up.

The run-up, magnetor check, and carburetor heat check were normal. Following the one to two minute taxi after the runup, the engine had been running for around 25 – 30 minutes with no indication of the upcoming problem.

When I made the initial power application for takeoff on runway 5, the engine accelerated strongly and smoothly, again giving no warning of things to come. After rotation, the engine experienced a partial power loss. The power reduction occurred as a smooth, slow drop in RPM.  The engine never ran rough, backfired, hiccupped, or exhibited any other characteristic usually related to a failing engine.  Based on the sound of the engine, I would guess there was probably about a 1,000 RPM drop. I estimate that the loss of power occurred approximately half to three quarters of the way down the runway, at 25 – 35 feet AGL.

At the first drop in RPM, my thought was “This isn’t happening.” At about the same instant I realized that I was going to be back on the ground soon. Attempting to land the airplane as safely as possible became my focus. I continued to focus on landing even though the engine RPM seemingly returned to normal only for the RPM’s to drop a second time. My perception at this point was that I didn’t have enough runway remaining to safely land straight ahead. My main concern was the stream and hedges at end of runway 5.

Once deciding that I didn’t have enough runway to land straight ahead, I thought the field along the left side of the runway was a safe bet with more open space.  Which, as it turned out, posed its own problems because it had a slight uphill grade.

accident diagram

An illustration of my takeoff direction and subsequent impact on the left side of the runway.

While all this was running through my head, I had instinctively lowered the nose to prevent a stall.  That’s about the time the RPMs smoothly returned to full power. But I was already committed to being on the ground even before the RPMs dropped a second time. While lowering the nose, I made a slight left turn toward the field. My attempt to make some kind of a normal landing really didn’t work out because I never got the nose back up to a good landing attitude.

I believe the reasons I never achieved a good landing attitude were:

  • The lack of altitude at the time I lost power
  • The lack of time to transition to a landing attitude
  • The need for a slightly higher-than-normal landing attitude due to the rising grade of the field.

All of the events that had transpired up until this point occurred at a seemingly slowed down reality until just before impact. At the point of impact there was an immediate sensory rush as the ground came up to meet me, along with the realization that it was probably going to hurt.

The aircraft impacted in the field in a somewhat nose low attitude coming to a very quick halt. But the airplaned remained upright. I received a large bruise to the left side of my face around my eye probably from the glaresheild. I took a hard hit to the sternum likely from the control yoke and a hard hit to the left side of my left leg as well.

airplane accident

The aircraft impacted in the field in a somewhat nose low attitude coming to a very quick halt but remained upright.

I was able to exit the aircraft unassisted and was transported by ambulance to the emergency room where they performed scans of my head and neck, abdomen, spine, pelvis and chest. Luckily, they found no indications of any severe injury. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for my Taylorcraft.

taylorcraft accident

The Taylorcraft is now in the possession of the NTSB.

Here are my personal takeaways from this accident

1) If you don’t have them, install should harnesses. Don’t let the excuses stop you as if you can’t find someone to do the work or you’ll put it off until the next annual.

2) Partial power loss is more insidious than an engine that gives up completely. If the propeller is still turning, your brain may immediately consider the possibility of remaining airborne and making it around the patch to a normal landing. Your brain will want to do anything but accept the fact that you are going to make an unplanned landing. The temptation to continue the takeoff could be almost irresistible.

All this extra contemplation could interfere with your ability to properly direct your attention where it is needed and delay your reaction to the emergency. You truly have no idea if it will continue running, will be able to gain altitude, or be able to run long enough to fly around the patch for a normal landing.

3) Runway length, altitude, and time are your friend. During a takeoff they should be considered resources to be conserved.  You have probably hear that one of the most useless things to a pilot is the “runway behind uou.”  Conversely, having as much runway available in front of you gives you more options. And altitude gives you the time to react better to the emergency and prepare for the landing.

To optimize these resource, begin your takeoff roll as close to the end of the runway as possible and use best angle of climb on your climb-out. This will provide you the most altitude gained in the shortest distance which will also ensure you have the greatest amount of usable runway in front of you.

4) If you haven’t invested in one of the new 406 MHz ELTs, do so as soon as possible. While my old ELT did activate, no one came calling or looking for an accident. This could have been due to no one monitoring the emergency frequency or a weak signal. But if I had gone down in an unpopulated area, the chances are good that no one was going to send out the search team in a timely fashion.

5) Be mindful of your procedures and how you perform your prefight. Most of us feel that we are diligent in how we approach getting ready for a flight. But no matter how diligent you are, how you accomplish the task may not produce the expected result if you don’t take into account the overall “big picture.”

An example of this is that one of the possible causes of my power loss could be that there was water in the fuel. So obviously it has been a topic of conversation among my peers at the airport. As I stated in the beginning, I had sumped my tanks. But since there is no sump point in my Taylorcraft’s header tank, the fuel sample is taken from the gascolator. When thinking about where the water could have come from, I came to a realization that when I checked the header tank sump, I was really only checking the fuel already in the gascolator because I didn’t normally open the main fuel valve until I was in the aircraft and ready to start.

Considering that the fuel flows out of the header tank to the gascolator, in order to check fuel that had actually been in the header tank, you would have to drain the entire amount of fuel out of the gascolator plus a little more before actually getting any fuel that came from inside the tank.

6) The old saying is true; in an emergency the airplane already belongs to the insurance company. In other words, don’t get lured into trying to save the airplane.


A Few Final Thoughts

I write to Air Facts to pass on my experiences, not because I think they are great, or that I have some insight that no one else does, but because it helps me deal with my own thought processes concerning a situation. I also hope someone else can learn from my experience and do things better than I did.

When making decisions there is a fine line between the ones that result in an okay outcome and the ones that don’t. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the outcome may be more luck than we would like to think. The good news is that you can weigh the outcome of an emergency in your favor by:

  • Recent Training
  • Preparation
  • Perform a safety briefing immediately before takeoff
  • Be Mentally Prepared

Currently the NTSB has posession of the Taylorcraft. It will be interesting to see what they determine as the final outcome.  Onc, the report is released I will enter the highlights of their findings in the comments section of this article.

In the meantime, keep the sunny side up and the pointy end going in the right direction.

Craig Bixby
Latest posts by Craig Bixby (see all)
20 replies
  1. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Very helpful information as to preparation for flight. You may have not been as complete on the preflight fuel situation, but in the short time you had you did a lot of things right!

    Reply
  2. Peter Rearick
    Peter Rearick says:

    Thank you for sharing. Your honesty and openness about what you did and what happened are very refreshing, and brings back memories of the sad day I overturned my Piper Pacer.

    I have also put some thought into climbing out at Vx, but decided against it as SOP for two reasons:

    1) At a high angle of attack, visibility over the nose is even more restricted than normal, so I’d be less likely to see unexpected traffic in the pattern.

    2) Climbing at high power and lower airspeed means less airflow to keep the engine cool, which means more wear and tear on the engine. Eventually, that will lead to less power available, reduced TBOH, and even the possibility of the engine failing.

    That’s food for thought, and again, thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Thanks for your input Peter,

      Sorry to hear about your incident involving your Pacer. Your point on engine wear and tear climbing at VX is well taken and one I hadn’t considered. Especially in aviation, for every viewpoint there is always a counterpoint way of seeing a situation! I brought up the exact same thoughts while discussing my incident during our EAA VMC Meeting, a week after the accident! Everything in aviation seems to have a trade off. Gaining more altitude at the expense of Higher AOA, slower speed, that in the event of an engine issue could make recovery even more challenging! So, I think you always need to be aware of the current situation for every flight and make decisions based on runway, length, aircraft performance, obstacles, weather, etc

      Craig

      Reply
    • Dennis
      Dennis says:

      One possible cause of engine failure could have been carburetor Ice ! Small continental engines are subject to ice at any time and anywhere! Some aircraft handbooks recommend the use of carb heat while taking off!

      Reply
      • Craig Bixby
        Craig Bixby says:

        Good morning Dennis

        Yes anything is possible. But there was no indication of carb ice during run up. No engine roughness on application of power at beginning of takeoff, or prior to loss of RPM

        Craig

        Reply
  3. Nis Van
    Nis Van says:

    Peter: I used to fly the Pacer’s younger brother, a Colt, and can relate to the nose in your face attitude that plane gives when flying at Vx. Craig: This is one of the best written accounts of a survived crash after takeoff I’ve ever read. Thanks for putting it together. I keep a crash pillow behind the front seat. After reading your account, think I’m going to put that puppy within easy, practically instant, arm’s reach on the right seat. Thanks again

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Hi Nis and Thanks!

      I didn’t start out to write an article for Air Facts. Rather, I wrote a summary of the accident for the Insurance Company, FAA, and NTSB. Once I got all that information down on paper I realized that with very little touch up it might be of interest to the folks at Air Facts so I sent it in. LOL

      Craig
      PS Like the idea of Crash Pillow!!!! Great Suggestion!

      Reply
  4. James Austin
    James Austin says:

    First of all, thank you for your open and thought-provoking story!

    Like Peter, my eye was taken by the comment about climbing out at Vx. It’s a tricky question that I’ve pondered over before: if you’re going to have an engine failure on take-off, do you want as MUCH energy available as possible, or as LITTLE? If your engine failure is at, say, 100′ AGL, you probably want low energy: low altitude and and a lowish (controllable) airspeed, so you can get back down onto the runway and stop before it runs out. On the other hand if your failure is at, say, 800’AGL, it’d be nice to have high energy: enough airspeed and altitude to safely make a turnaround or nearby field. The right answer seems to depend on knowing where your engine failure will happen and how you will deal with it.

    For what it’s worth, I came down on the side of high energy: as soon as I lift off, I lower the nose a touch and fly my low-wing in ground effect until I pick enough airspeed that I can hardly help climbing. If my engine fails early, I’m still pretty close to the runway; and if it fails ‘late’ (i.e. after I pick up too much airspeed to put her straight down), I’ve probably got enough airspeed to ‘zoom’ up at least to BRS (CAPS) height, if not for a turn-around.

    I’d welcome any counter-arguments!

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Hi James Thanks for reviewing my article!

      Until I had my accident I too would “lower the nose a touch” and would gain airspeed to around 75 and then begin my climbout at around 80. I had never contemplated doing anything else until I asked myself “How Could I Have Given Myself More Altitude ‘hense More Time to deal with the situation”. Climbing at VX seemed the easy answer. But, as most know, there is usually no one easy or best answer in aviation.

      Craig

      Reply
  5. Byron Huff
    Byron Huff says:

    You never mentioned if you pulled the throttle to idle. I may be missing something but it seems that the emergency was “Loss of power/engine failure on takeoff”, or abort. The first step, with the parameters of airspeed and altitude you described would be throttle idle. But I wasn’t there. Your comments?

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Hi Byron thanks for reading my article!

      Good and Fair Question!!!

      Out of the things I recalled about that takeoff the handling of the Throttle is a blank.

      So here is what I think occurred. At the first drop in RPM I didn’t do anything with the throttle. I know this because in the middle of making the decision to land to the left of the Runway, the engine RPM accelerated back up to full power!! (BTW that is a Siren Call hard to ignore)

      But, I believe that once the Engine RPM came back after I had committed to a “landing” I must have pulled the Throttle to Idle, by instinct. (so I really have no idea if the engine lost power the second time or if I pulled throttle off) The other thing that leads me to believe I had the Throttle at idle and that I was holding on to it when I hit is the fact that the throttle handle itself was bent downward from the force when I touched down!!

      Craig

      Reply
  6. Allen Young
    Allen Young says:

    When you first experienced the RPM drop, my most immediate thought was to close the throttle, nose down and land strait ahead or to the field at your left.. No thought of maybe it will make it around the pattern. Something is not right, and I want on the ground and now.

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Good Morning Allen

      It was also my intent to be back on the ground as safely as possible.

      But, no one has control over the thoughts running through their brain in the millisecs of being presented with an emergency. There was the thought (albeit momentary) that was considering “avoiding a crash landing” due to the fact the still engine was running! THEN of all things it came back to full power! Which could only further feed a brains refusal to accept the fact you were going to have an emergency landing.

      I pointed this out in the article as a warning so if someone is in that position they will be forewarned and NOT fall for the Siren Song of saving the situation because they “hope” the engine has enough power.

      Doing a search of the internet will supply examples like this one of people succumbing to the lure of “preventing the unplanned landing” only to have it end worse:
      https://generalaviationnews.com/2019/06/21/loss-of-engine-power-on-takeoff-bends-aeronca/

      Being forewarned is being forearmed

      Craig

      Reply
  7. David Wilkins
    David Wilkins says:

    Craig, thank you for sharing your experience with us. Your openness about your actions will benefit the aviation community.

    I had a similar experience with a C172 I was instructing in. It turned out to be a piece of gasket material that had broken loose and got sucked into the throat of the carburetor.

    Reply
  8. Steven Toby
    Steven Toby says:

    Excellent account of your emergency, thank you, Craig.

    It brings back memories of an incident I experienced in the late 80’s. I was doing instrument practice with my ex-wife in the right seat as safety pilot. We did our instrument practice, and meanwhile it got dark. My ex-wife said she needed to regain night currency so I said she could go around the pattern from the right seat. The airplane was a Cessna 172, the same that I had used for my private pilot training and checkride. I was now practicing for an instrument checkride. She had her private license, but she had taken her checkride in a 152 and only had a few hours in a 172 as a checkout with her instructor. I think the checkout was probably done in daylight. Anyway, the approach was fine but touchdown was hard and too fast — I would have flared more and sooner. The airplane bounced up about 10 feet. I had been taught never to salvage a bounce that big, but to go around, but her instructor, not the same one I’d trained with, had taught her to flare a second time. She was PIC so I felt I wasn’t allowed to talk. Well, we bounced again — I think the higher seating position made her systematically overestimate the height above the runway in the dark and start a slow and late flare both times. Anyway, the airplane hit hard on the nosewheel and bounced up again. At that point I said “I have the airplane” and went around. The airplane limped around the pattern and I landed it “normally” — until the nosewheel made ground contact. When the nosewheel touched it rolled to a stop and could no longer taxi. The propeller was bent and the nosewheel tire was blown. The airplane was out of service for repairs for a substantial time, delaying my instrument checkride. Since I hadn’t been trained to salvage a bounced landing, and didn’t know how badly the airplane had been damaged in that second contact with the ground, it never occurred to me that it would have been smarter to try to manage a third encounter with the runway instead of making a circuit of the pattern. However, your analysis is very convincing. Going around the pattern in the dark without knowing for sure the engine would keep running, or the damaged propeller would provide enough thrust to remain airborne the whole time, might have been more dangerous to the people than having a crash on the runway from 10 feet up without enough airspeed for a successful flare. It’s helpful to learn from someone else’s experience.

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Good Evening Steven and Merry Christmas!!

      Sounds like a scary event for sure. I would imagine a Porpoise is hard enough to recognize and take the correct action in the daylight. Responding to one at night, plus one induced by someone flying other than yourself seems even more daunting!!!! Glad to hear the situation came out as good as it did!!!

      Take Care
      Craig

      Reply
  9. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Craig–
    Why was the NTSB involved in this accident, and why did they take possession of the airplane? Ordinarily, an FAA inspector would take care of such a light GA/minimal injury crash. A friend and his wife died in the crash of their homebuilt on a cross-country trip, mysteriously descending from level flight in a flat spin. As strange and unexplained as that double-fatality crash was, it was entirely handled by the FAA. “Inquiring minds want to know.”

    Reply
    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Good Afternoon Hunter

      I don’t have an answer to why the NTSB would investigate mine and not the accident you mentioned.

      It may be because the Sheriff’s Department reported it to the NTSB and not the FAA.

      I do know that the NTSB did not send a person to the accident site. I was interviewed by an FAA Safety Inspector that came out and looked at the aircraft, gathered the information, which he then sent to the NTSB.

      To my knowledge the NTSB contracted the teardown of the engine and did not do it themselves.

      So, far I have had no feedback from them other than they have released the airplane back to the insurance company

      Craig

      Reply

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