THE VINTAGE INSTRUCTOR
After the prop stops DOUG STEWART
short while ago I was flying to a nearby airport with my 16-year-old son at the controls in the front seat of my 1947 Piper Super Cruiser. At the appropriate time he started his descent. With carb heat on and power reduced to 2,000 rpm, we were in a stable cruise descent. We were approximately 2 miles from the airport, descending through 2,500 feet AGL, when he suddenly pulled the power to idle. It certainly caught my attention as I sat up and said, “Why’d you pull the power?” “I didn’t,” he said. “I thought you did,” he continued as he began sitting up straight in the front seat. Saying, “I’ve got it,” I quickly took him through the drill. Trim for best glide. Carb heat on. Mixture full rich. Check both fuel tanks on. Mags on in both. From our position relative to the airport, we had just enough altitude and distance to glide to a downwind landing. Announcing our position and predicament on the UNICOM frequency, we set up for a modified left base to the runway. Luckily there was no one else in the pattern. With the slow glide speed of a PA-12, there was not enough air passing through the prop to keep it windmilling, and as it came to a stop, I am sure my son’s eyeballs were about as big as saucers. I touched down on the runway just a little farther than I had planned, as I had not realized the tail wind would be as strong as it was. However, I was still able to coast off the runway onto the grass just beyond the first taxiway. As we rolled to a stop, my son said, “The only thing missing was a hat on the runway,” referring to our friend Stan Segalla’s “Flying Farmer” act that ends with a dead-stick landing, coming to a stop right beside his farmer’s hat that had “blown” out of the cockpit on takeoff. Was it luck, skill, or currency (and I’m not referring to money in my pocket) that led to an uneventful outcome to a potentially dangerous situation? I’d like to think that it was a combination of all three. Luck? Certainly, in that the failure occurred within gliding distance of the airport, and the absence of anyone else in the pattern. Skill? I’d like to think that I have good skills . . . but who amongst us would admit to having 22
less than good skills? Currency? As a flight instructor there isn’t too much in my pocket, but as far as practicing simulated power failures goes, I would be honest and accurate if I said that I coach students through these at least several times each week. Furthermore, when I am pleasure flying my Super Cruiser by myself, or with friends and/or family on board, I practice a simulated power failure at a minimum of once a month. To me, that is money in the bank. These simulated failures are practiced both at altitude as well as in the pattern, and they are always taken to a landing. To up the ante I insist both for myself, as well as for my students, that the landing be a precision landing, touching down on, or no more than 100 feet beyond, a designated spot. Bob Martens, one of the best Safety Program Managers the FAA has in it’s employ, is often heard to say that if you have not practiced a simulated power failure in the past 30 days, then you are not current if your engine does indeed fail for real. How current are you? Many pilots feel that they have to have an instructor on board to practice a simulated failure. This is not the case at all. However let’s be CLEAR about several things. When practicing failures, be sure to CLEAR your engine at least once for every thousand feet of altitude loss. That way if a go-around becomes a necessity, your simulation will not become a “realation.” Also be sure to CLEAR the area. Although an instructor is not required, it is always great to have someone else on board to help keep an eye out for other traffic; it is easy to miss traffic when all your attention is focused on getting to the runway. Also be sure to announce your position and intentions over the CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency). Obviously, if you are operating at a towered airport, you will need to coordinate with ATC. Many instructors have their students break off a simulated power failure when they get within 1,000 feet of the ground. Unfortunately if you have not practiced a simulated power failure to a full landing, you might find that the most difficult decisions occur below 1,000 feet AGL. Even judging when to apply
flaps will only come from experience. I would not want that knowledge to be gained only when experiencing a genuine failure. To gain the most out of the training be sure that you endeavor to land on a designated spot. And to further enhance the training, do a soft-field landing so that you are prepared to land in a plowed corn lot if that happens to be the only landing option if or when your engine fails for real. Speaking of real engine failures, you won’t have time during a failure to get out the checklist. This is one of those emergencies that requires you to know what to do immediately. It is only through frequent practice that will you be prepared for the eventuality. Memorize the engine failure checklist through repeated practice. I have also found that many pilots, when verbalizing the procedure, say at some point, “Attempt restart of engine.” I ask if that means that they are going to go to the starter switch, and I usually receive a reply to the affirmative. What we have to realize is that in many engine failures, the reason the engine is no longer producing power is because it is missing one of three ingredients: fuel, fire, or air. If this is the case, the propeller will be windmilling. Restore what is missing and the engine will immediately restart without ever touching a start switch. The fuel could be missing because you’ve run a tank dry (if it’s your only tank, you had better look for a landing spot) the mixture might have vibrated to idle cut-off a fuel line might be blocked; a fuel pump, if you have one, might have failed; or a fuel line might have broken. Switching tanks, checking mixture full rich, and putting on an electric pump, if so equipped, should restore the fuel. The engine might not be getting air because of carb ice or a blocked induction system. Try carb heat or alternate air. An engine might not run too well if a magneto has jumped time, so see if the engine will run better on one mag or the other. You are probably wondering what had caused my failure. Well . . . the best I can figure out, I had more than an hour’s worth of fuel on board, but it was distributed unevenly between the tanks. When a Super Cruiser pitches nose down, as in a glide, the fuel line at the back of the tank unports, sucking in air, if the fuel quantity is low. In retrospect, had I switched that low tank to “OFF” I might have gotten a restart before the prop stopped. I’ll remember to try that next time! If you are reluctant to practice simulated power failures by yourself, then by all means hire an instructor to come along with you. And do not wait to practice these only once every other year during your biennial flight review. Practice them frequently. If, or when, your engine quits, you’ll be thrilled that you invested in the training . . . and furthermore it will help you in the transition from being a good pilot, into being a great pilot!
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