The Pilot’s Lounge #117: Playing “Let’s Pretend” For Keeps


We just had a little excitement in the Pilot’s Lounge, here at the virtual airport. No, Old Hack didn’t get into another fight with someone over nosewheel versus tailwheel pilots; one of the charter pilots actually had one of the engines on a twin Cessna quit on him in flight. I’ll refer to him as Dave. Dave had three passengers aboard and was minding his own business, motoring along in cruise, when the left engine self-destructed. He went through the memory items on the emergency checklist, got the prop feathered and the fuel supply shut off and took care of flying the airplane as he should.Once the gotta-take-care-of-it-now stuff was completed, Dave pulled out the checklist and made sure he had the cowl flaps closed, the alternator off and the other securing-the-engine items actually secured, told his passengers that there was going to be a bit of delay on the trip and that he’d tell them more in a minute, and called ATC to let the nice folks at Center know what had happened and what he was going to do next. ATC was most accommodating and he diverted to a nearby airport. Dave flew a normal pattern, he didn’t try anything new or different from what he’d practiced, landed and made arrangements for his passengers to get to their destination via another airplane.A couple of days later Dave happened to be in the Lounge, and as he is a gregarious sort, I was treated to a full description of the event. What stuck me was his comment about knowing what to do with his hands as he carried out the memory items on the emergency checklist. He was in cruise, so when the engine started making all sorts of ugly noises and generally announcing that it was going to slip its mortal coil, he had plenty of airspeed and time to deal with the problem. Nevertheless, Dave said that as he reached the conclusion that the offending engine had become more of a liability than an asset and would therefore have to be shut down, what struck him was just how rarely his hands were tasked, in flight, to pull just one throttle back and then pull just one propeller lever all the way back and around the detent into the feather position. It took a bit of concentration to do it right, to select the correct levers and move them where they needed to go.

Multi-Engine Becomes Single Engine

The moment he made those comments, I recalled a fatal accident involving a Cessna 421 in which the pilot-in-command made the decision to cage the left engine while flying at pattern altitude. The investigation showed he had pulled the left throttle to idle, the right prop to feather and the left mixture to idle cutoff. The resulting descent rate was so fast that he apparently didn’t have time to realize that he’d disabled both engines instead of one and then take the steps necessary to undo what he’d done.I also recalled the time a good friend of mine had been demonstrating single-engine handling on a twin and — when intentionally shutting down one of the engines — pulled its prop control back to the detent, not through it. By the time he realized the problem, he had a propeller in high pitch, not feather, and it was rotating so slowly the feathering locks had engaged and he could not feather it; the airplane was sinking and he was too low for a restart. A rather ignominious belly landing resulted; fortunately, the only damage was to the airframe and his pride.As a charter pilot, Dave takes some fairly serious recurrent training every six months. He also gives recurrent training with the organization where he works, so he gets a lot more time simulating emergency procedures than the average bear. In spite of that, his comment to me was that he found himself moving very deliberately because he was engaged in doing something that he only does once out of many dozen flights, moving controls for the airplane in a fashion that is only done in an emergency. His next comment really got my attention, “You know, I’m glad that every once in a while when I’m sitting around waiting for the passengers on a charter trip I pull out the POH and walk through the emergency procedures section and visualize what I would do for each one a couple of times.”Good grief … what a simple, inexpensive method of keeping one’s skills honed. If a charter pilot who takes regular recurrent training does it, going through Section 3 of the POH and putting one’s hands where they go for each step of each emergency should pay huge dividends for a general aviation pilot who probably doesn’t do an emergency procedure outside of the biennially mandated flight review.After Dave had wondered off, I searched around and found a PIM (Pilot Information Manual — that’s the POH except it’s not tailored for a one individual airplane, with all the weight and balance stuff in it) for a Cessna Cutlass RG, the Model 172RG. I sat back down in one of the big recliners in the Lounge and opened the PIM to Section 3, Emergency Procedures, and started working my way through it.When I started going through the emergency checklist line by line, and taking some time to think about what it would be like to carry out each emergency procedure in real life, the whole exercise became very real. It was also an almost decadent pleasure to be able to take some time and think each step through … something one doesn’t get to do when going through training because it’s usually such a slam, bang, get it done process.

Aborted Takeoff

So, let’s see: “Engine Failure During Takeoff Roll.” All right, we’ve lined up on the runway and moved the throttle all the way forward. We hear the noise level increase radically and feel the acceleration. We’re concentrating on tracking straight ahead, ailerons into the wind, feet off the brakes as we play the rudder pedals. A quick glance assures that manifold pressure and rpm are where they should be and the airspeed indicator is coming alive.The noise stops.We’re moving down the runway at 50 knots, but we’re not accelerating any more and for the first time ever on a takeoff we can hear the wheels rolling. Despite our thoughts careening along, it’s as if we’re swimming in glue. We are aware of so many irrelevancies: We’ve got too much right rudder in … hmmm, that P-factor stuff really does try to turn us left on takeoff; the prop is slowing down; and oh, yeah, wow, it’s really happened, the engine has quit, guess we better do something, there’s not much runway left.OK, let’s get on the brakes and get stopped.As I sat there imagining the situation, I suddenly recalled a friend of mine making a takeoff in a J-3 Cub many years ago. The engine quit in the middle of the takeoff run. He left the throttle all the way open, just because he was so amazed by the whole thing, and was concentrating on letting the tail back down and keeping the airplane straight and then getting turned off of the runway because there were other aircraft about. About the time he was heading between two runway lights, the carburetor bowl refilled (there was a partial fuel-line blockage) and the engine roared back to full-throttle life. He had his hands completely full. His mind was in “stopping the airplane off of the runway” mode. Suddenly he had full power and was pointed toward the mature corn adjacent to the grass that grew along the side of the runway. He managed to close the throttle, kick in some left rudder to get parallel to the runway and stop the airplane before he hit anything.The engine was running just fine right then, idling, hushing the propeller around on that sunny summer day while my friend sat alone in the back seat, bathed in sweat. I recall that he told me he was tempted to try to takeoff again because the engine seemed just fine. Instead, he had the presence of mind to shut the airplane down right there because he knew he hadn’t imagined the engine stoppage and he didn’t know what was wrong with the airplane, and he hadn’t ever been trained as a test pilot.Coming out of the reverie induced by reading the first line of that emergency procedure, I finally looked at the steps set out under it. Items one and two were written in bold ink and said, clearly and concisely: “Throttle – – IDLE.” Yep, it said it in big letters. Sure makes sense to me. Then it said, “Brakes – – APPLY.” Yes, that makes sense to me as well. I’m still a little embarrassed about the first time I had an engine quit on takeoff in a twin. It happened for real early on when I was taking dual for my multi-engine rating. I managed to get both throttles closed after a fashion, and stay on the runway even though the airplane had firmly turned right under the influence of the one working engine, but then I just sat there being amazed as we rolled rapidly toward the end of the runway. That is until my instructor said something about brakes (they were only on my side). He said it real loud, too. And I pushed real hard and we slowed down enough to make the turnoff at the end of the runway.Sitting in the recliner and taking the time to think and move my right hand back, closing that imaginary throttle and rocking forward hard on the imaginary brake pedals, the throttle and brakes as memory items for an engine failure on the runway really sank in.I looked through the next several items: flaps up, mixture idle cutoff, ignition switch off, master switch off, and I thought of my friend who had considered another takeoff and of the accident reports written after folks had actually tried another takeoff and found that the engine really would quit a second time, at an even worse location, and so they died. And I thought that following the checklist to completely shut the airplane down made sense. It’s a lot less stressful to shut down an airplane and go complain about a problem than it is to try to takeoff again and have the engine fail once more.So I spent a little more time picturing takeoffs I’d made and interposing an engine failure on the runway. What would I do at Lowell, Mich., where the runways are pretty short and there are trees right at the very end of a couple of them? Could I stop? If not, what would I aim for that would minimize the impact? What would I do at Oshkosh, where I know there is at least one airplane starting a takeoff roll behind me? Which way would I turn to clear the runway and when would I make that turn? I thought about closing the throttle and getting hard on the brakes, especially on a hot day where I might have used up so much of the available runway at many of the airports I frequent.

The Fatal Climb

The next item on the parade of horribles was “Engine Failure Immediately After Takeoff.” Of course my mind kicked into gear and I found myself thinking of an instructor I had had so long ago. He had taught in Stearmans during World War II and when he would give an engine failure after takeoff he would say “Pop me outta my seat” as his way of making it utterly clear that there is very little time to stuff the nose down to avoid a stall following an engine failure on takeoff and that it must be done aggressively. I also thought about how very hard it is to do just that — jam the nose down — when low and the view out the window will become comprised of such a high proportion of ground and so little of sky, a drastic reversal of what was framed before the pilot a moment earlier.Again, before I looked at the procedural steps, I thought about takeoffs in the past and what I would have done had the engine failed in the first few hundred feet, where the options are so limited and the need is to overcome one’s natural aversion to pushing the nose down just when the desire is to gain altitude, to get performance from an airplane when there was no performance left to get. And I thought of the fact that a number of manufacturers had increased Vx in their airplanes over the years simply because the original best angle of climb speed, calculated and tested to allow clearing an obstacle in the minimum distance, was so slow that — in some cases — it was physically impossible for a pilot to lose the engine and get the nose down fast enough to maintain enough airspeed to allow a successful flare for landing. Thus, published Vx was increased 4 or 5 knots so that there was hope for a successful landing should things go badly wrong while low and slow on climbout.Sure enough, the first and only thing on the bold, memory item portion of the checklist was the speed to maintain, 70 KIAS with the flaps up, and 65 KIAS with flaps down. All else in the case of an engine failure immediately after takeoff was secondary, to be handled when and if there were time.I sat in that comfortable lounge chair and I held the imaginary Cutlass RG yoke in my left hand and throttle in my right. And I thought of that horrible silence that comes about when the engine quits in the climb and I moved my left hand forward firmly and thought of how things would look out front when I did it for real and did my best to promise myself that I would not try to turn back to the airport. I had read far too many accident reports where turning back was tried, without success, and I thought of an acquaintance I had lost when he tried to turn back and stalled the airplane and hit so hard that even on the flat ground where he impacted, out of control, it killed him.

Sage Advice

I thought of my aeronautical betters who have told me time and time again that we pilots do well when we have thought about situations and before those situations arise. They have convincingly showed me that we tend to do poorly when we have not practiced or even thought about them ahead of time. We also tend to do poorly if quite a bit of time has elapsed since we considered something we do not do often. We do not do emergencies often.It took me close to an hour to go through the emergency procedures in that PIM. A couple of people commented to me about the odd movements I was making with my hands and feet, especially when Old Hack walked in as I was going through the motions of finding the gear pump handle with my right hand, extending it and pumping the landing gear down. But, once I told him what I was doing, that old complainer nearly cracked his face smiling at me and said, “Good. Nice to know someone else plays pretend with airplanes. It may be pretend, but we’re playing for keeps.”I’m going to keep doing it, but I think I’ll pick a more private spot next time.See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.