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Anatomy of an Aircraft Engine Failure

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, April 2005
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Its a bright crisp morning.  A soft dewy mist hangs over the landscape and will quickly disappear as the sun rises. Its a beautiful time to fly.  The preflight is complete, full fuel, and oil at the recommended level.  ATIS and a taxi clearance takes you to your runway, and soon you hear, "Runway 9, Cleared for Takeoff."  The short flight from Tampa to Winterhaven would last almost an hour.  Its a predictable flight that is as comfortable as the well-worn path of a wooded trail.

Airport in sight.  "No traffic observed between you and Winter Haven, squawk VFR, frequency change approved."  The descent from 1,600 to 1,000 takes about 2 minutes.  Five miles from the airport, 1,000 feet, and a beautiful landscape ease your mind as you listen to the AWOS, plan your entry to the traffic pattern, and set your mind to the task of landing.  Suddenly the engine runs very rough and airspeed is decaying as you hold altitude.   You apply carb heat thinking you've picked up carb icing.  A minute later you're four miles from the airport, carb heat didn't help, and best glide isn't helping you maintain altitude.  You adjust power settings from 2,350 RPM to higher to see if you can get more power.  It doesn't help, you are 800 feet and 3.5 miles from the airport.  You reduce the power to 2,100 RPM and discover that doesn't help.  You are 600 feet and 3 miles from the airport.  You think to yourself, "Hmmm, what's this little problem?"  You realize you have no answer.  You see a highway and you line up.  You notice every fifth power pole has a power line that crosses the roadway. Its early morning, there's no traffic, and you're at 500 feet.  You start to think, "I might have to land here instead of the airport which is 2.5 miles away."  You start to recognize that this annoying little problem is going to disrupt your day a bit.  As you get closer to the airport, you're on a two mile final at 400 feet.  Witnesses on the ground will later tell you that they came out of their houses to see a small, noisy aircraft overhead with smoke coming out of the back.  The good news is that your $1000 noise canceling headset has taken care of any unhappy noises that your aircraft has been making the last two miles. Overhead view of Winterhaven Airport

One mile final, 300 feet MSL, you realize the airport is rising rapidly. Elevation of the airport is 145 feet and you come to realize that you're only 150 feet AGL over a lake.  You make it to the runway and might even slip a little to your landing.  As you exit the aircraft, an uncomfortable airport crowd has gathered to look at your airplane.  They've noticed the engine oil which has covered the landing struts and the nose cowling.  You become aware of another interesting problem as a pool of oil forms beneath the engine.  You've never noticed that happen before so you surmise that it can't be good.  Looks like your earlier thought about the disruption to your day turned out to be true.

A mechanic shows up and tells you that a cylinder has gone bad, something about a valve and pushrod.  He told you it was akin to driving your car with one of your tires flat and expecting to travel at highway speeds.  He said it doesn't work that way and it explains the loss of power.  Only the three remaining cylinders were providing power, but unfortunately, it doesn't translate to a 25% loss of power but far more.  As the day wraps up, you've made your way home, and given some thought to what others have experienced in the same situation.  You now have come to realize the things they already knew:
  • Altitude is your friend, it gives pilots an opportunity to plan better.
  • Practicing engine out procedures during yearly recurrent training is a good thing.
  • Engine failures tend to be sudden and dramatic and require a pilot's full and immediate attention.
  • Survival doesn't necessarily require luck as much as good airmanship.
  • Had another pilot been on board, there would have been a debate on what should be done. 
  • A desire to preserve the aircraft is a pilot's first deadly mistake.  An aircraft in this situation has shown a pilot the ultimate discourtesy, and you owe it nothing as a result.  Fly the aircraft to the ground on whatever still works.  Hitting the ground with some control is better than hitting the ground out of control.
  • Knowledge of local terrain is invaluable.  Getting to an airport at 200 to 300 AGL is not entirely possible unless you know where each tower, large tree, and tall building stands.
  • There's no one to declare an emergency to in sparsely populated areas.  And then what good would it do?
  • The guidance tells us stay away from populated areas as to avoid injury to those on the surface.  You quickly realize that if you've got a good place you think you can land on and survive, you'd take it.
  • At the beginning of the flight, such a failure is not expected nor planned for.  Have you ever asked yourself, is this flight my last?  You'll never know.
  • Does it take you four seconds to react to an emergency?  Does it take you 34 seconds?  Will you over-react and make the situation worse? 
  • During the time it takes a pilot to react, airspeed and altitude will be lost forever.
  • Pilots should review engine out procedures more often, not only for cruise flight, but take off, approach, and landing phases of flight.


The best time to think about an emergency is prior to the flight.  Being in a position to decide what you will do when the time comes is better than being in the position deciding what to do. 

Magneto Failure
  • During run-up, engine will quit when selecting L or R, do not depart.
  • During flight, engine roughness not associated with carb icing, or misfiring. If able to operate on both, do so and land as soon as possible. If not, determine which magneto is faulty, select the good magneto and land as soon as possible.
Engine Failure, Unable to Restart
  • Follow POH.
  • If above 1500 AGL, consider actions to restart engine. If below 1500 AGL, consider actions that get you landed safely.
  • Land into the wind, on an airport, road, or level field (if possible).
  • Jettison or secure objects which could hit you on landing.
  • Fasten seat belts as tightly as possible, including shoulder harness.
  • Communicate as soon as possible, 7700 and talk to ATC giving exact location.
  • Before touchdown, land at the slowest forward speed possible.
  • Lock doors in the open position to ensure egress.
  • Secure all aircraft systems that can cause severe damage to you: electrical and fuel.
  • Protect face with cushions, jackets, life jackets.

Unusual, Extreme Vibration
  • Causes include: propeller damage, motor mounts, engine problems.
  • Land as soon as possible, consider a power off approach at low idle.

I'd be interested to hear your story, please consider sharing it with me.

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