The Corn Was as High as an Elephant's Eye

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When the noise from a single-engine plane's powerplant stops shortly after takeoff, how one handles the ensuing engine-out landing means everything. AVweb's Linda Pendleton recalls one such incident in her career, one which ended in field of tall corn and from which both she and her student were able to walk away.

I was on an airliner flying over the Midwest on my way to a business appointment in June and it struck me that I had forgotten just how green it is in the middle of the country in the summertime. Southern California is a lot of things, but green in the summer is not one of them. I looked down on the neat section lines and remembered how easy it is to navigate when you have such a prominent directional reference. The roads in SoCal that do go straight, don't go straight for far before they run into a canyon or a mountain. Later, as I was driving through the countryside on the way to the printing plant, I noticed that the corn was well on its way to being knee-high by the 4th of July. My Grandpa told me that was a sign of a good crop. Looking at the corn also reminded me of a close encounter with corn that a student of mine and I had some 24 years ago.

Dick was a quick study and we met at Chicago's Midway Airport (MDW) at 8:00 that morning to go out and begin his first concentrated session of takeoffs and landings. He had about 6.5 hours at the time, but he was the type of student to whom you show maneuvers once and then watch him perfect them. I wanted to get going before the heat thermals started and Dick wanted to get in some good flying before he had to go to work. The day was typical brown-haze-August in Chicago, but the visibility was an unusual seven miles.

The Takeoff

We departed MDW in a Cessna 150 and headed southeast toward Indiana. I planned to do the practice at the Hobart Skyranch (3HO) and we contacted the Gary, Ind., ATC tower to transit their area. When we got to the Hobart area, I took the airplane to demonstrate the first pattern. After we landed, I talked all through the taxi back to the takeoff position of runway 36. I remember pointing out the trees at the departure end of the runway and telling Dick that there would be turbulence over them, but that he should not fight it because he'd make it worse.

Dick took the airplane, did the before-takeoff checks and pushed in the throttle. I was pleased to see the airplane track straight down the centerline and lift off at the proper speed. Dick established the climb and kept the ball in the center — a very good takeoff to say the least. Just as we got over the trees the whole airplane began to shake violently. My student looked over at me with a questioning look and I know he thought the turbulence was pretty weird — right up until I uttered those infamous CFI words, "Oh, %$#*! I've got it."

The "Landing"

I established best glide speed and did the mixture-master-mags drill. The problem seemed to get worse. There are some houses directly north of the airport and then a cornfield. I'd had that cornfield in mind ever since I started flying at Hobart as a place to go if the engine quit on takeoff from 36. The south end of the airport tucked up to a nice golf course, so that was the obvious choice in case of an engine failure departing 18.

It seemed to take a very long time to get to the cornfield and the houses were looking really, really big, but eventually we were descending into corn. I planned to mush in just above stall speed and that's exactly what we did. As we settled through the corn the nosewheel caught in the dirt and the airplane began to go over. It was almost as though it happened in slow motion — so slow, in fact, that the vertical stabilizer never touched the ground. The cornstalks cushioned the horizontal stab and held the tail off the ground.

After the motion stopped, Dick and I were hanging from the seatbelts and he asked, "Do we get out now?" You bet we get out now! I could smell avgas and I had no inclination to stick around for any fireworks.

Finding Civilization Again

Once we got out of the airplane, the next problem was getting out of the cornfield. On the way into the cornfield, I was somewhat occupied with flying the airplane and was not looking around to plan the walk out. But I was always taught that in the event of a cornfield landing, the proper procedure to leave the cornfield was to walk with the rows. This makes sense because it keeps you from wandering aimlessly around in circles. You have no idea how tall the corn can get in Indiana in late August until you've been unceremoniously plunked down into the middle of it. All we could see was corn, and straight overhead, the sky.

We followed the cornrows north until we came to the end of the cornfield and found it was bounded by a wide, stagnant drainage ditch and a very steep bank up to the expressway. That obviously wasn't going to do, so we turned around and followed the rows back past the airplane to the southern border of the field only to find that the south boundary of the field was a river. Old Indian ancestor once say, "Follow river. Find home." So we began following the riverbank. What we found was right out of Deliverance, complete with a couple of snarling, mangy hound dogs. We avoided the dogs and followed the deeply rutted driveway out to a country road and that road took us out to a highway where we found a construction company office.

All the way back to civilization, Dick questioned me about the procedures and techniques I had used to handle the emergency. I told you he was the perfect student — he considered everything a lesson to master. The only thing I had expected him to see was corn and yet all the while he was making mental notes for questions he wanted me to answer!

Now, you've got to realize that by this time Dick and I were somewhat the worse for wear. Neither of us was injured getting into the cornfield, but we sure got dirty getting out. We had mud up about to our knees and grass stains all across our bodies from pushing through the corn. I knocked on the door and told the man that answered that we had just crashed in the field and that I needed to use a phone. He gave me one of those "Yeah, sure, lady. Everyone knows that nobody lives through plane crashes" looks, but he did let us in to use the phone.

Taking Care of Details

There were lots of calls to make. We had crashed right under the approach course for the ILS 30 at Gary so they needed to be told that the airplane was there and everyone was okay in case an overflight reported the crash to them. I called the local FSS to tell them in case the ELT had gone off — it hadn't — and the South Bend FSDO to tell them I had a little story to relate to them. I called the flying club at Midway to tell them to mark me off for the rest of the day, poor little N63155 indefinitely, and to send a plane out to pick Dick up. I phoned the FBO at Hobart and asked them to come over to the construction company and pick us up. They kept insisting I was kidding them when I said I crashed. I made all these calls in an efficient and businesslike manner.

Then I called David. He's MY instructor. I lost it. Maybe it's a girl thing, but what we had just experienced didn't hit me until I heard his voice and then I just dissolved. I got over it quickly, though, and we went on with business.

We arrived back at the Hobart airport at about the same time the plane arrived from MDW to pick Dick up. The first thing he asked the instructor that came to get him was, "Can I fly back?" When I commented about this later he told me that he had always thought the worst thing that could happen in a single-engine airplane was an engine loss on takeoff. Since that had already happened to him and he had come through it unscathed, he considered that he was ahead of the game.

Needless to say, the rest of my day was occupied with the FAA, the insurance company and the local police authorities. The really scary part came when the Gary police helicopter came to pick me up so that we could hover over the 150 to enable the FAA to find it again. The corn was really tall and the airplane was not visible from the ground. Helicopters are not my favorite flying machine and hovering over tall corn is uncomfortable at best.

Engine Failure On Takeoff Considerations

Our trip into — and out of — the corn was successful. So, what can you do to assure that a similar failure will leave you intact? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Pick out your intended landing spot BEFORE you begin your takeoff roll. One of the best times to do this is on your way into the airport on arrival. Local pilots can also provide you with the lay of the land and help you with likely candidates. At your home airport you should have a spot picked for each departure runway. Reinforce this selection as part of your pretakeoff checks. The shock factor of an engine failure shortly after takeoff will rob you of valuable decision time and you have other important tasks to accomplish.

  • Fly the airplane first. This may seem elementary, but pilots getting distracted by other chores during an emergency cause many accidents.

  • Remember, your prime responsibility is to the folks inside the plane, not to the airplane itself. That airplane has already let you down, so don't be worried about damaging it. Keep the cabin intact. Wings and landing gear are expendable items and will absorb some of the energy of impact.

  • This is where your energy management skills will shine. You'll want to land the airplane as slowly as possible while maintaining positive control. Go out and practice this. The reason we drill on emergency procedures is so that they will come as second nature when they're needed.

Hopefully you'll never be faced with an engine failure shortly after takeoff in a single-engine airplane. Most pilots aren't. I've had a dozen engines take the day off in 10,000+ hours but that 150 was the only single-engine airplane that let me down.

Dick continued to fly after our excellent adventure and soloed in a few hours. I later found out that he was somewhat of a hero when he got back to his place of business. He had a small cut over his eyebrow that his coworkers all assumed he had sustained in the "crash." I never told them that he had walked into the back of the wing of the 150 during the preflight.