Every student pilot (and no, I am not going to call you a “learner”) is familiar with the forced landing exercise. The airplane is out in the practice area and the instructor pulls the throttle to idle and tells you the engine just failed. You then frantically look around for a field to land in, quickly mumble the engine failure checks and concentrate on flying a gliding approach that will hopefully set you up for a landing on the field. The first few times you probably missed the field by a country mile but with a bit of practice you get better at flying an approach that would actually result in a survivable forced landing.
And this is the wrong way to teach about engine failures.
Let’s look at the lesson we are really teaching. What we are showing the student is that the aircraft that he she had done a full walk-around inspection including draining the fuel sumps and checking the fuel and oil levels, performed all the run-up checks, verified the correct static RPM/MP at the beginning of the takeoff roll, and which in cruise flight displayed normal engine gauge indications, has a sudden and complete engine failure. This type of engine failure scenario is, in fact, the least likely to actually occur in the real world.
The reality is that the accident data show that at least 60 percent of the engine failures are a direct result of the actions or inactions of the pilot. Carb ice and fuel exhaustion/mismanagement figure most frequently in the cause of the failure and both, of course, are entirely preventable by the pilot. Sadly, all but one of the actual engine failure accidents I personally know of were, in my opinion, preventable. The most egregious had the airplane end up in a ditch just outside the airport fence. Nobody was hurt, but the aircraft sustained enough damage that it was scrapped. About a quart of water was drained from the selected fuel tank after the accident.
In another accident I read about in a flying magazine, the aircraft lost all power and the pilot executed a difficult but successful forced landing into a very small field, the only available flattish area within gliding range. The airplane was totaled but nobody was hurt. The pilot attributed his success to surviving the engine failure on the fact that he regularly practiced forced landings. The cause of the accident? Carb ice. It seems to me that if this pilot spent more effort on developing an effective instrument scan and regularly checked for carb ice on a day that was conducive to carb icing, he would not have had to use all that forced landing practice for real and there would be one more GA airplane still flying
The last “engine failure” I personally experienced did not start out as an engine failure. The first hint that my day was about to be ruined was that the RPM started hunting 100 revs up and down. All of the appropriate troubleshooting was inconclusive. The situation progressed to intermittent burps where it momentarily lost power to a total loss of power just out of gliding range of the runway. Fortunately for me, the engine recovered power in a few seconds with no action from me and I made an uneventful landing, with the engine stopping when I pulled the power off on short final. Despite more than 40 years of flying experience, I found the situation difficult to deal with because it wasn’t obvious what was wrong and whether I could get home if/when the engine failed.
The problem is the traditional one for safety of flight. You ace the forced landing and you’re a hero. However, if you do all the boring unsexy stuff like good walk-arounds, make the effort to learn the airplane systems so you know what to look for during the run-up and in flight, don’t live with aircraft defects and you have good checklist discipline, then your chance of having an engine failure is greatly reduced. But you don’t get any credit for something that didn’t happen.
I think the first step to breaking the pilot-induced-engine-failure problem is to be honest about pilot shortcomings and cover these during training. Habits, good or bad, are established in initial pilot training and it’s important for instructors to connect student mistakes in normal operations to potential consequences.
When teaching or for those already certificated and practicing forced landings, after pointing the airplane at a suitable landing area, it’s vital that a full and effective cause check is completed. If my student misses an item or rushes the check, the exercise is over and I reset the airplane. In addition, I give my students a few partial failures, some with enough power to just maintain level flight, and some with power but not enough to maintain level flight. This invariably generates excellent discussion around the decisions the pilot made. Engine mechanical failures almost always give some warning, so I insist that my students get a feel for where the engine gauges normally sit. Significant changes from normal will result in action by the pilot. However, that only works if pilots develop the habit of regularly scanning the instruments.
One of flight training’s dirty little secrets is that flight school airplanes frequently fly with defects because taking the airplane offline means revenue is lost, so there is a strong temptation to live with defects until the next 100-hour inspection. This normalization of deviance sends a bad message to students and licensed rental pilots. There are still a distressingly large number of engine failures in airplanes where the pilot took off with a known defect.
Finally, I tell my student when the engine fails, the insurance company just bought the airplane. The only consideration is the safety of the occupants. If the airplane can be saved, that’s nice, but it should never be a consideration. Your job as the pilot is to fly the airplane to survivable landing areas and arrive with the airplane fully under your control.
But we ought to be emphasizing that it’s better to learn to avoid the failure in the first place.
David Gagliardi has been in instructor, banner tow pilot and air taxi pilot and has also flown forest-fire-suppression operations. He keeps up his instructor and aerobatic instructor ratings and also teaches formation flying as a FAST-rated 4 ship lead pilot. He currently works as a Transport Canada Flight Operations inspector based in British Columbia. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Transport Canada or the government of Canada.
In my 40 years of flying, luckily, all my engine ‘failures’ have been partial failures. Only once did I recover full engine authority. But, the first and only priority is to FLY THE AIRCRAFT. Yes, troubleshooting is important and items like carb heat, fuel pumps and proper fuel tank selections must not be overlooked, let alone proper engine/aircraft handling pre/during/post flight. But, if one doesn’t fly the aircraft it all ends right there. Dont let a partial failure lure you past a good landing spot only to make in into a horrible spot short of a runway…that might be the most difficult trap of a partial failure.
EXCELLENT article! In training, we too often concentrate on whether or not we “made the field”–rather than “what’s wrong?” The author does an excellent job of emphasizing the preflight and flying the airplane–this is as it should be–concentrate on PREVENTING the scenario, rather than “did you make the field?”
Another good point–asking pilots “where do the engine gauges normally sit?” When riding or instructing in a strange airplane, I keep a watch on them–it’s surprising that renter pilots and owners don’t monitor them closer.
As flight instructors, we often “teach as we were taught” without exploring better ways to teach and prepare pilots. Examples like this one should be cause for us to alter our teaching procedure, as well as our own flying.
the basic in situations , I have found A>>N>>>C>>> Aviate, Navigate, Communicate .
another good one is PAT power,attitude Trim.
just a few to keep in the back of your mind, when needed they all come to your rescue
cheers keep the blue up
Unless it is immediately obvious it was due to your last (reversible) action (or inaction running a tank dry) ANY change in engine behavior should be treated as impending engine failure…with a land ASAP mentality…only judgement question is whether it is possible to make it to nearest runway vs survivable spot. Other than the exception above, return to “normal” power/indications should not alter your decision to land at the nearest suitable runway to investigate further on the ground. Assume any performance recovery is a gift that may soon stop giving.
Engine instruments out of norm (agree with above, not just out of limits) are not the only indicators, unusual noise/vibration, lower performance (airspeed/altitude)…always amazing when someone reports bangs, parts departing, “but engine instruments were good” so they continued (to the scene of the crash).
The standard, “Your engine failed” type of training does have its place in aviation. There are plenty of examples of catastrophic failures occurring on takeoff, cruise and approaches. It is important to train for the no time, no notice failures. The failures I have had in my 25+ years of flying have all been sudden no notice mechanical failures. Engines are very likely to fail on the high power takeoff or the first power change. This means low and without notice and requiring immediate action without thought to initiate a corrective action to get the flight safely to the ground.
I do agree that we need to train better in the prevention and monitoring of aircraft performance. Further we need to teach to deal with these problems as emergencies and to include others to support us, such as ATC when we have these events.
Lastly, the process of training in the conventional manner has the effect of desensitizing new pilots to events that could be quite scary. This serves a purpose in reducing the stress of pilots to continue dealing with an emergency in flight. In the airline world we have almost the other problem. We train worst case so much that we have desensitized pilots so much that we treat emergencies as normal events. In most cases when you listen to an airline crew dealing with an engine failure like the catastrophic failure on the UAL 777 or Aloha Cargo 737, you will hear a almost monotone voice on the radio with little to no concern that their engine has just exploded. In the case of 777 they landed safely, in the case of the 737 they ended up in the ocean off Hawaii.
We can’t swing too hard to either side of the spectrumn.
You make good points about real world engine failure/partial power training that should indeed be offered to students. However, here in the US a student pilot needs to be trained according to the Private Pilot ACS – if the objective is to take a checkride to get the private pilot rating. A DPE is required to check that the applicant performs the emergency approach and landing skill elements listed in the task. The first step requires that the pilot “Establish and maintain the recommended best glide airspeed, ±10 knots”, which you do not mention. You can look up the rest online, and then conclude that all CFIs are being asked to do is train their student to take the test. Like it or not, that is what their training has to focus on it they want to get the rating.
That’s not really true. The official guidance for the ACS even specifically says that it’s not a training guide. Students have to be able to perform to the ACS, but it shouldn’t be the only thing students are trained to. Lazy CFIs might use it that way, but that’s not what it’s intended to be used as.
In any case, the first step in a simulated engine-out (or real engine-out for that matter) *should* be to establish best glide. THEN you do the troubleshooting.
My father (having survived a forced landing after being shot down in Africa during WWII) had to perform a forced landing in Skylane caused by the casting of the valve rocker arm bearing of an exhaust valve failing due to a bad cast. Back pressure from the affected cylinder into the induction system caused the engine to lose (almost) all power quickly. I don’t recall the exact circumstances of his other two forced landings (one as a passenger) but AFAIK only one would fall in your “preventable” category. While training to prevent them, it still does make sense to train off-field-landings. To this day I remember an exercise given during a checkout in a Citabria. I was used to previous instructors calling off the exercise at about a hundred feet when it was evident that we would have made it but on this particular flight that did not happen until about 10ft and I clearly noticed that my mindset had changed from “we exercise” to “we’ll land this thing here on the dirt track between two fields”. That was over 30 years ago but I still remember that feeling and think it is important to know that you actually can and are ready to land outside an airfield.
It’s certainly true that students should be trained to perform a good preflight (which means, actually knowing what they’re looking for) and in-flight troubleshooting, but there are often some things that aren’t detectable on a normal preflight or even a thorough engine-cowling-off post-maintenance preflight that may lead to an engine failure. So there definitely is value and importance to the typical engine-out exercise.
What I do on these exercises is force the student to go through the troubleshooting steps, because I have in my mind a specific system (or sometimes multiple systems) that has an abnormality, and if the student correctly performs the troubleshooting steps to covers my simulation, I’ll often times give the student the engine back. Or I’ll tell them that “at some point” the engine will experience an issue (“maybe partial-failure, maybe complete failure”) and tie that into a scenario of forcing them to decide if they can make it to a nearby airport or if they should set up for a forced landing over a perfectly good field. And depending on the choices they make, I’ll vary the exact circumstances within the confines of the systems scenario I have created in my head for them.
Along the pilot-induced failure line: A couple of years ago I was practicing night landings at my local airport. Snow is rare here in southern Virginia, and I took advantage of about two inches of light, wet snow to do a little night sightseeing.
I did my usual climbout to pattern altitude and remember thinking that it seemed to be taking a lot of twisting to get the propeller dialed back to 2450 rpm. Without warning, the engine quit at about 400′ agl. Just quit.
I’d always wondered how I would react, and it was the oddest thing. Looking at the wet fields below, I said out loud, “Well s***t; I’m going to get my airplane muddy.” That was it.
I had instinctively lowered the nose to best glide and had a few seconds to think. Turning back, over the trees, in the dark, was a non-starter. Not having practiced forced landings in a while, my only thought was that the legendary ice-maker O-470 had done just that, so I pulled carb heat.
To my amazement, the engine started running again – just barely, but running. I immediately realized this made no sense, but – hey, it’s running. I used the partial power to begin a slow turn toward the airport. Once within gliding distance, I began to look down at the controls for the first time and realized that I had twisted out the MIXTURE vernier instead of the prop.
It was the very best lesson to learn: one that doesn’t cost anything. I have since practiced emergency landings often, always reminding myself that you undo the last thing you did if you have problems, and – especially at night – identify by feel any control before you move it. There is a reason the knobs have different shapes.
I wish I could say I’ve never done that.
Paul, I’m a low time PPL and I have a question for you. In a carburated 172 experiencing carb ice shutdown, would using 1/4, 1/2 or a full primer squirt help restart the engine in addition to carb heat? Or is that worthless or contraindicated for some reason? (BTW, love your insight at PilotWorkshop.com)
Thank you for your thought-provoking article. I agree that preventive attention to detail quietly takes care of most emergencies (and I will be more thoughtful about testing carb heat on run-up).
This is true in flying and any other activity. As a ski instructor, I am struck by people trying to impress me with their wipeouts self-inflicted injuries that were totally avoidable with a little forethought. I guess it is human nature.
“and no, I am not going to call you a “learner””
Well thank God at least for that. Saying “laerner” makes you sound like you failed to learn English.
Quite right You’re, Michele
Good article, and also good advice about thorough pre-flight inspections. I have had two engine failures in my flying life, both caused by sudden internal engine damage that could not have been detected on pre-flight. However, one could have been significantly mitigated through a good preflight. For several prior flights, when I energized the boost pump to start the engine (low wing carbureted engine), the pump would sometimes fail to run. A couple cycles of the power switch would usually get it working, so I wrote it up to a switch that probably needed replacing at the next annual. After all, the boost pump was just needed to start the engine, right? On the night flight in question, cruising at 6500 feet heading home, the engine suddenly just stopped. I went through the restart procedures – carb heat, switch fuel tanks, boost pump, etc. The engine briefly restarted, then quit again. Fortunately I was able to glide to a nearby lighted airport and landed without any damage other than soiled underwear. A post-incident inspection revealed that an internal part of the engine-driven fuel pump had broken, rendering it completely useless. And, as it turned out, the problem with the backup (boost) pump was corroded contacts within the pump, not a bad switch. It ran for a few seconds, causing the brief engine restart, before the contacts failed and it too became inoperable. Had I taken the time to investigate the boost pump problem when it first occurred, I probably could have restarted the engine. I would have still landed at the same airport, but at least under power. The message has stuck with me ever sense. When something doesn’t look or seem right during all of the pre-flight process, no matter how minor it seems, stop and investigate. It might just save you and your plane.
I had a scary incident as a new student pilot. I was on a cross country trip in the training center’s 172 when I noticed my fuel gauge was reading empty. I thought this odd since I had topped off at the Wilmington Airport KILG and went through my preflight check list and had personally checked the tank levels and cap closing status before taking off. The engine was running strong all the time. I had only been in the air for a short time. I was flying the cross countrty trip to Atlantic City, NJ. The closest larger airport to me when I noticed the problem was Millville Muni, NJ, KMIV. I contacted them and they give me directions and landing info and tracking. I landed fine and the local fuel truck guy and I checked the tanks. They were still about topped off. I called back to the Wilmington flight training office to get instructions. They checked and found that someone eilse had stated that the fuel gauge had not been reading properly, BUT nobody bothered to flag it. It scared the bejesus out of me, and I was in a really foul mood when I landed at Wilmington and taxied back to my training center. It brought the reality of always looking for a place to put down in an emergency, and always carefully use your check list before taking off.
I was a CFI forever, and during COVID I took a chance and went to A&P school. My A&P instructor makes a great effort to humble the student who fly, and I eventually had to agree with him 100% and realized I knew almost nothing about how the engine or most systems actually worked other than the POH and PHAK rote answers. My instructor pointed out daily that only thing pilots think they know is a pile of old wives tales what their CFI taught them which probably wasn’t ever true either. Most pilots knowledge is just plain wrong since they learned from CFIs like me who had no idea what they were talking about.
It is not true that a good pre flight and careful monitoring of engine instruments will necessarily give you any hint of engine failure. A pilot preflight covers ONLY A VERY FEW things that you could check for on an aircraft to determine its airworthiness. A preflight doesn’t hurt but it seems more like a ceremony. It would take anyone at least 30 minutes to do a decent job of looking over the plane IMO. Also, a 40 yr old airframe and engine have many components that can and do just die on you. Likewise checking fluids, draining sumps, etc. is good but is not a guarantee of anything. Again, most pilots that rent, or students and their CFIs have rarely if ever opened a cowling or have any idea what to look for other than the picture of a walk-around flow from the 1971 POH. Most legacy GA planes have 50s era instrumentation. But even with great instruments, who really understands what they are try to tell us?, and in any event there are all sorts of things on these old planes that can fail catastrophically without any indication to the pilot.
This situation reminds me of skydiving training. They have many exercises for dealing with a chute deployment malfunction (analogous to engine problem). There are a dozen scenarios of chutes that didn’t open correctly that you have 80 seconds to decide if you can still get a good main canopy or should you cutaway and pull the reserve (also not without risk). So yes you are trained to try things like salsa out of a line twist or yank those toggles with all your might to gain control, but as for me, I am probably going to panic and the easiest thing for me to remember is just go with my reserve and hope that deploys properly (analogous to off-field landing).
Everyone has a limited ability to cope with an engine malfunction, owing to the startle factor and limited time (we fly under class B at 1,300ft so I only have a couple minutes and a couple miles). Yes at 10,000 ft I would have more time to assess the situation, but a lot of GA flying is well below that. Yes, understanding your fuel system, fuel metering, mags, engine could save your life in certain scenarios.
But for small planes, I think the current training mantra of: best glide speed, pick a landing area, then do a 40 second check of: apply carb heat, boost pump, check fuel selector, try the other tank, check primer, check mixture, check key position, try the other mag, etc. would cover about 80% of what anybody could realistically troubleshoot in the air. I am not sure if folks generally have the ability to try anything more than that.
But assertions that these events can be largely prevented or mitigated by a good pre-flight or engine monitoring do not seem to hold up to me.
A partial tally for airplanes based at my home drome that had engine failures which resulted in a forced landing over the last 20 or so years. 2 carb ice, 1 took off with only enough fuel to get about 10 miles from the airport, 1 ended up wrecked with the fuel selector on an empty tank and 10 gallons in the other tank, 1 pilot killed the engine when the he pulled the mixture knob out instead of the carb heat on downwind, and the one I mentioned in the article that had a quart of water in the tank.
You don’t have to be an A&P to look in the tank and see that it is empty, or decide it might be a good idea to sump the tanks on an airplane left outside in the rain, or realize that a big drop in RPM combined with a rough running engine means it is time to apply carb heat.
The guy who ran a tank dry is for, me the poster child for ineffectual instruction. He was a low time newly licensed pilot who had just bought a nice little Cessna. The engine died in cruise at 3000 ft AGL and he defaulted to what he was taught which was all about flying the forced landing in a way that would get you a good score on the flight test. The muscle memory that would have resulted in an effective cause check, and therefore recognition of the fuel selector position relative to fuel quantity, was never built in because it was glossed over in favour flying that perfect forced landing.
I absolutely believe that every pilot should attain and maintain the skills to fly the airplane to safe landing when the engine becomes uninterested in further toil, but there would IMHO, be a lot less business for airplane salvage yards if the pilot caused engine failures were largely taken out of the engine failure equation.
Sometimes you can get carb icing without engine roughness. I once got severe carb icing in cruise and was probably only a couple minutes away from the engine quitting all together before I put on carb heat, but the engine never once ran rough. So it doesn’t help that we’re usually presented with the “typical” symptoms of this or that, but quite often the real-world symptoms are not typical.
Also take for example a rough-running engine on climb-out that ended up being a bad magneto (the points were actually rusty). But it wasn’t continuously rough-running; it was intermittently rough, and only above 5000′.
Neither of the above would have been detectable in a pre-flight, but to your point, neither was the typical “oh, the engine just quit” training particularly useful either. To the extent that is practical, when I have students go through the engine roughness/engine failure drill, I make them actually manipulate the controls like the carb heat, switching mags or fuel tanks, etc (done safely over actually usable off-airport fields should something actually fail, of course). I also make them say out loud (to me, not over the radio) that they’re declaring an emergency.
You are way off base. One has nothing to do with the other. Keeping your airplane “airworthy” is a given if you want to be around to retire. and a good instrument scan is taught from first flight and should catch most abnormal readings but does not take the place of proper engine out procedures nor does it take the place of proper training and practice. Personally I do not believe
I do not believe that a low level engine out (say 500 ft) leaves any time to trouble shoot systems etc. My 210 will drop like a rock from 500 ft (ask me how I know) I barely had time to figure were to put it and keep it flying let alone troubleshooting systems. By all means learn your planes systems and gauge indications but never never at the expense of the proper training and practice of engine out procedures. My other pet peeve is to practice over and over engine out procedures down to 100 ft and then never ever go ahead and land on the dirt or field. I had to buy my own plane to see if I actually land the thing off runway. I did have to do it during a terrific storm coming back from Oshkosh my first time and having practiced it I had no hesitation to do so when there was no other choice.
You make an important point. There are situations where flying the aircraft has to be your one and only priority. The engine failure right after takeoff is an obvious case where you don’t want to be head down. Out of curiosity what caused the engine failure on your 210 ?
A scenario not mentioned is loss of power during an instrument flight. This happened to me at 10,000 feet in Toledo Ohio Class Bravo. I was above the ceiling at night in broken clouds when the engine stopped producing power. I immediately went to best glide speed, looked at the GPS for an airport and out the window at lots of blinking lights on airliners everywhere. I tried MAYDAY to ATC and on 121.5 squawking 7700 (I am convinced that no one ever listens on 121.5). Finally Toledo approach heard me after two or three minutes and vectored me to an approach to TOL.
The landing was uneventful except that the battery did not have enough in it to put the gear all the way down. Ten minutes of gliding with all the radios, landing and taxi lights on had drained the battery too much.
Lessons learned: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Make sure that the battery is in the best shape possible. In aviation you can never have too much altitude, fuel or money.
The engine lost power due to a total blocking of the filter in the fuel selector because of a fuel stop 2 hours before that was full of sediment that had not settled before I drained the sumps.
Finally, be especially careful in Class Bravo. Airliners do not listen before transmitting, do not look out their windows and are bigger and usually faster than you are.
Unfortunately everyone is busy meowing and congratulating “brandon” on 121.5 these days 🙁
One factor about forced landing rarely touched on with training is a forced landing may happen over very hostile territory. Under this scenario it is important that pilots know minimizing kinetic energy on impact and providing for the dissipation of what energy may exist on impact is critical to survival. How to minimize that energy and maximize its more gradual dissipation should be part of training.
Procedures, procedures, procedures! A recent incident clearly demonstrated the need to follow the proscribed procedures when flying. The pilot in this instance ended up landing in a farmer’s field because he had an engine out in the single engine Cessna. He executed the forced landing quite successfully. That is to say that not only was he not injured but also that the plane only suffered what was described by the AME as hangar rash. The pilot flew from his home airport to another where he enjoyed his lunch. He then began his return flight. Approximately fifteen minutes into this leg his engine quit. He was approximately 3000 feet AGL. He quickly found his best glide speed and then had time to check ForeFlight for any available runway. While there was one he was unable to spot it so he picked a field and gently put the bird down. It was a corn field that had been completely harvested but had some corn stalk stubble sticking up. So, what went wrong? When he did his run-up at his home base he did not use the check list. When he was ready to depart after his lunch he did not do a walk around. When his engine quit he did the first part correctly by immediately setting up for best glide speed but did not follow up with the engine out procedures. Can you guess what happened? He ran out of fuel or at least that is what it appeared. Because he didn’t use the check list he inadvertently skipped the step of switching from the left tank to the right tank and subsequently to both tanks. Because he didn’t visually inspect the fuel tanks prior to departing for home he didn’t notice that one tank was almost empty. Because he didn’t follow the engine out procedures even though he had lots of time to do so he didn’t notice that he was flying on the left tank only. Had he done any one of these things this incident would never have occurred. We can not know what is going to fail inside an engine. That is something that simply must be dealt with and why we practice forced landings. Following proscribed procedures however is how we an handle almost anything else. Note that the pilot did a lot things correctly. Most importantly he followed the mantra of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. And no, I was not the pilot in question. I was the pilot who flew the plane out of the field; but, that is another story for another time.