Engine Out After Takeoff: Part 1

By Tally One Contributing Instructor Pilot Wolf Emonds, CFI

Do you rent, borrow, or own an aircraft? Do you in some way or another have anything to do with a general aviation aircraft? If so, you may have considered the issue of insurance. You may have thought of protecting your investment in the airplane itself, you may have sought to protect yourself in the event you hurt someone else or their property.

I wish to tell you a story about how I myself was involved in an aircraft emergency and how it all worked out. Please note I’m not trying to make a point on what you should do or what I wish I had done. This is a story about a case that happened and what the outcome was. It may make you think a little and do some research.

I’m a certified flight instructor and I operate a small business. As such I take on a considerable amount of liability. Whether or not you feel flying for a living is safe does not enter into this. What does enter into it is that if you take another human being into the air as a professional you own some serious liability.  I know and accept this. I try to limit my exposure by being the best pilot I can be, by being very cautious, by trying to fly well-maintained aircraft, and finally by having good insurance.  Because I often fly aircraft that are owned by my students, or owned by a fixed base operator I purchase a renter’s and borrower’s policy with CFI coverage.

The following is my actual NTSB report detailing an event that took place resulting in the inspiration for this story. Let me set the scene for you just a little.

Sandy River Airport is a grass field airstrip approximately 50 feet wide and 2,000 feet long. It is surrounded by very tall trees on all sides, and just to the north of the east-west aligned runway is a several hundred foot cliff leading down into the class five whitewater of the Sandy Gorge. Sandy gorge happens to be one of my favorite kayaking river runs, but is absolutely not where you would want to land an airplane!

The event took place on July 27, 2012 at about 6:00 pm Pacific Standard Time in perfect, no-wind VFR conditions. Ron Barnes, a friend and ultralight pilot, asked me if I’d take him for a short flight. He explained that he wanted to fly his Part 103 ultralight but had not flown at the Sandy  (03S) Airport for some time. He wanted to see the approach and reacquaint himself with the pattern and sight picture in the name of safety. I’d flown with Ron before and consider him a friend. I’m always ready and willing to help a fellow aviator and his request made perfect sense to me.

We had access to an InterPlane Skyboy airplane as my friend David Richards had given me permission to fly and enjoy it. I’d flown it twice already and had just over an hour of flight time in this aircraft. It had performed flawlessly on two previous flights.

I pre-flighted the aircraft and witnessed Paul fill the fuel tank. I personally filled the oil injection tank and inspected both carburetor float bowls for correct level, signs of contaminants or water, and found all to be normal.

Ron and I both boarded the aircraft and buckled ourselves in. We taxied to the west end of the airport for run up and eventual departure on runway 08.

During run up I called out each item on the checklist and Ron observed and read back each step.

“Controls free and correct,” I said as I performed a box check, then Ron repeated back to me, “Controls free and correct.”

Me: “Ignition one checks good.”

Ron: “Ignition one checks good.”

Me: “Ignition two checks good.”

Ron: “Ignition two checks good.”

Me: “Gas full, boost pump on, fuel shut off valve on.”

Ron: “Fuel full, boost pump on, fuel valve on.”

Me: “Altimeter set, 700 feet.”

Ron: “Altimeter set.”

Me: “Radio on, intercom on, 122.8 check, and monitoring  for traffic.”

Ron: “Radio set, monitoring for traffic.”

Me: “Switches set, gages in the green, all looks good, engine strong and idles smoothly.”

Ron: “Switches set, gages in the green check.”

Me: “Flaps set 10 degrees, trim for take off.”

Ron: “Flaps and trim set for take off.”

With the run-up complete we were ready for our VFR departure on 08 and planned on staying in the pattern closed-traffic.  After the passenger brief was complete I asked, “Are you set Ron?”

“Yes, ready for take off Wolf!” was Ron’s reply.

“Power up and rolling.  Airspeed alive. Rotating and climbing, positive rate of climb, retract flaps.  Good airspeed.”

Passing the end of the runway at about 300-400 feet AGL I sensed a slight reduction in thrust and reduction in climb, but at this point I’m not 100% certain I have a problem. It could have just been the wind or my imagination. But I’m not taking chances; instinctively I turn the airplane towards the safety of the fields to the southeast of the airport. As the airplane crosses over some tall trees and houses there is a sudden and severe loss of thrust. I’m now unable to maintain altitude.

The engine RPM started to pick up for a half second. My mind raced with the options I had available; maybe I can make it back to the airport…. But almost certainly I can land this airplane in that field. If I don’t land the airplane now and it quits running a few seconds later then I’ll run into those houses and trees. I make the choice, “I’m making a landing in the farm field now!” I reason that it’s better to be embarrassed in a field than crashed into a house.

But there is a problem, I’m too high to land in the field I’m lined up on and I’ll have to extend my downwind as far as possible to have as much field available as I possibly can. I tell Ron, “Ron we have a problem. I’m losing power and we are landing in this field”

Ron says, “Really?”

I say, “Yes really, get ready!”  Now the engine loses almost all power and my thought is, “I’m really low and losing both speed and altitude fast, don’t stall or spin this airplane, get the nose down and bank it hard to the left right now!” I’m below the tree line and there is no other choice at this time. I either make this turn or I’m hitting the trees for certain.

So I do just that, I push the stick forward crank the stick and rudder over to the left, and turn 180 degrees while descending. I roll wings level and begin an almost normal power off landing. I flare and the plane sets down absolutely gently.

New problem: the landing is perfect but I’m going 60 mph downhill on grass and that fence ahead is getting close, fast!  I thought, “I’ll never get this airplane stopped in time!”

Next problem: There is a huge telephone pole anchor post attached to a steel gate straight ahead. I thought to myself, “If I hit that post with the cabin we will both die.”

I made a control input of maximum left rudder pedal, and the airplane changed direction sufficient for the post to slide out of my view to the right.

My next thought: “Aim for the fence wire.  It will work like a safety net.”

I did so, then BANG! The right wingtip struck the large gatepost, whipping the airplane sideways and catching it in the wire fence. We are stopped and unhurt. I look at Ron and he says, “Wolf are you OK?”

I say, “Yes, I’m perfectly fine Ron, are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m absolutely fine not a scratch!”

I then reached out and shut off the mags and fuel pump, but later learned I’d forgotten to shut off the master switch. We sat in silence for a few moments then we saw feet running toward us. A lady was running to help. Ron and I both became worried she would fall down and hurt herself, so we both called out to her, “Lady we are fine, don’t run!”  Then we laughed at how funny that must have sounded.

We climbed out of the cabin and my first thought was, “Gee wiz, Dave is going to be pissed I bent his airplane!”

The witness had a stunned look on her face as we walked around and looked over the wreckage. She could not believe we were both unhurt. She told me she saw the entire thing and that she heard the engine quit and then saw what she described as the most perfect landing ever followed by the bang into the fence.

At that point all the neighbors and people from the airport raced up and the scene got a little chaotic. Police, firemen, and others showed up. A man handed me his phone and said the NTSB wanted to speak with me. I carried on a phone interview with him for quite some time. They wanted me to check the fuel. I told them I couldn’t just then. But I did check the carb float bowls and they were full and clean. I located the farm owner and gave him my business card.  I told him I’d be happy to pay for the fence repairs. He was a cool old guy and said something like, “Son, fixin’ fences is part of farmin’. Just glad you didn’t bust your ass out there today, good job!”

That’s the summary I gave to the NTSB for their report. Be sure to read Part 2 where I detail the aftermath of the crash.  Safe flying!