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Emergency Landing - WRAL news article Cherokee 180 V Speeds
Engine Out - Commercial Airplane - Riveting true story

Pictures of repair in cornfield, and takeoff from the street.

True story - Engine failure in a Piper Cherokee 180 at 6500 feet (Pictures below)

I took off from LHZ (just Northeast of Raleigh, NC) at 11:45am EST on Friday, 2/23/2004 on my way to a long weekend in Gainesville, Fl. The flight was uneventful, until about 45 minutes into the trip. I was at 6500 feet at about 12:15, when the engine just quit. There was no engine sputter, it just stopped.

I pitched the nose to obtain the best glide speed (85 MPH) - this is the speed that will give me the greatest distance, the most time in the air, and keep the airplane from stalling. I went through the engine out procedures, and heard a brief backfire from the engine, then nothing. I had an airport 8 miles away at the 2:00 position (MEB:Laurenburg-Maxton, elevation: 220 feet MSL). At a decent rate of about 1100 feet per minute, I knew I wouldn't make it. I had roughly 5 minutes left in the air - at best - and with a ground speed of about 60 knots (roughly 69 MPH, due to a strong headwind) I might make it another 5 miles, taking into account trees and power lines. I could see the airport, and there appeared to be a few acceptable landing places between me and the airport. That's a good thing, because the airport was not within reach.

Below is my best recollection of communications between me and approach control. The communications below will read as though they were calm. They were, much more so than I expected. I had always wondered what my reaction would be to something like this, but never thought I'd actually find out. I always expected I would be okay, but I was somewhat shocked at how calm I really was. That probably saved my life, or at least serious injury.

2486 Xray is not the plane's real call sign - it has been changed to protect the innocent!

2/23/2004 approximately 12:15 EST:
2486X: "Fayettville approach, this is Cherokee 2486 Xray."
FAY:     "Cherokee 2486X, this is Fayettville go ahead."
2486X: "Fayetteville, this is 2486 Xray. I just lost my engine, and I'm going to have to land."
FAY:    "(pause) Cherokee 2486X, Laurinburg-Maxton airport is 2:00 and 8 miles"
2486X: "I don't think I'm gonna make that, is there anything closer?
FAY:    "Fayetville is 9:00 and 12 miles."
2486X: "Which one is closer?
Okay, I need to explain this one. If I had turned towards Fayetville, the 23+ knot headwind would end up being about an 20 knot tailwind. What I MEANT to ask was "which will I get to faster", not "which one is closer" - that was obvious! I knew I would have a tailwind if I turned, but my algebra skills escaped me at the moment. As it turns out, it would have taken me about the same amount of time to get to either one, so what really mattered was which airport had the best fields between me and the airport. I chose Laurinburg-Maxton because I could see it - and everything in between. I couldn't see the Fayetville airport, so it didn't make sense to turn that way. I don't remember Fayetteville approach's response to that question, I realized I had phrased the question the wrong way, but did not want to waste time trying to explain.
2486X: "I'm heading towards 2:00."
FAY:    "2486X, do you want to declare an emergency?"
2486X: "No."
Declaring an emergency gives you priority over other aircraft when landing at an airport and gets the emergency equipment dispatched to the runway. I wasn't going to make it to the airport (and there was no traffic in the area), so the paperwork resulting from declaring an emergency would have been more trouble than it was worth. Yes, that actually went through my mind :)
FAY:    "We'll watch you on radar as long as we can."
2486X: "Thanks, are you going to call someone?"
FAY:    "We'll see where you go down on radar, and dispatch rescue."
2486X: "Thanks."
--pause for a minute or so--
FAY:    "2486X, we need to ask you a few questions."
2486X: "Go ahead."
FAY:     They ask questions like What is your: Aircraft type, souls on board, fuel on board, color of plane, home phone number, home base, who do I want them to notify and phone number, etc, and I give them the answers.
--another pause for a minute or so--
FAY:     "Cherokee 2486X are you still with us?"
2486X: "Yea, I'm here. I see a field down there, I'm going to try and make it. I can't go much further."
FAY:     "Good luck."
2486X: "Thanks for your help."

At this point, I turned the fuel pump off and shut off the fuel supply valve. Another pilot radioed to Fayetteville approach, and offered to circle above me so they could give ATC coordinates on the "landing". The field I picked for landing is at about 10:00. I make one circle (about 300 degrees) clockwise to lose altitude, and started my final approach to the field, crossing about 70 to 90 feet above the power lines.

Once I cleared the power lines, I dumped the flaps, and slowed the plane as much as possible before the wheels hit. I contacted the ground at 55-60 MPH, and pulled all the way back on the yoke - and kept it there. At about 10-15 MPH, the left main landing gear hit a very soft patch of ground, and the plane veered 90 degrees left, and came to a complete stop. I think I sat there for 5-10 seconds with the yoke still in the full aft position. I have very little recollection of how smooth or bumpy the short 240 foot landing roll was, but I remember vividly the 90 degree turn. As soft as the ground was, I would have nosed over and flipped on my back if I hadn't kept the back pressure on the yolk. I powered on the radios to let Fayetteville Air Traffic Control know that I was okay:

2486X: "Fayetteville approach, this is Cherokee 2486 Xray."
FAY:     "2486X, this is Fayetteville approach, are you on the ground?"
2486X: "Yeah."
FAY:     "Are you okay?"
2486X: "Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for all your help."
FAY:     "How's the airplane?"
2486X: "I think it's okay. I'm shutting down now."

As I got out of the plane, Hazel Woods was running out of her house with a phone in her hand, saying "they want to know if you need paramedics and fire department!" I told her "No, tell them not to send fire or paramedics!" She invited me in, offered a nice glass of Southern NC sweet tea, and I placed the first phone call - to my insurance company. Once I'd reported the accident, I called the Fayettville tower, FAA, and NTSB to make the report. Fortunately, I didn't have any numbers to look up. The sherrif's dept kept coming in with messages and phone numbers that were relayed from the FAA, NTSB, and FSDO, saying they need for me to call them. How nice of them to keep me preoccupied!!

The pictures and descriptions below are not meant to dissuade anyone from flying - flying is awesome and still MUCH safer than getting in your car. The purpose of the pictures and descriptions is simply to answer the resounding question: "Why did your engine quit?". The mechanic with over 30 years experience repairing aircraft had never seen this happen, nor had the FAA investigators. Lucky me.

One of the officers (NCHP) said to me right after the incident "I guess it'll be a while before you fly again after something like this." Not true, two hours after the emergency landing, a plane (itty bitty 150) was sent to pick me up outside of Fayetteville and bring me back to Raleigh - Thanks, John B. at First In Flight! Special thanks also to Jerry and Hazel Woods for the iced tea on landing and snacks while Rick and I removed the engine (and for letting me park my plane in their front yard for the next few weeks), to the Robeson county Sherrif's department, the NC State Highway Patrol for the ride to the airport, to Rick P. at First In Flight for driving out to pick up the engine (and teaching me how to take one out), and to the FAA investigators, Eric M. and Bob S., for not "violating" me for my unscheduled "off field" landing..
2/23/2004: FAA investigators visiting the "landing" site today ruled the official cause as engine failure. There did not appear to be any structural damage to the plane or to the landing gear meaning that the "off field landing" was not considered to be an aviation accident - the NTSB will not investigate. Pilot error was not a factor. Damage to engine appears to be substantial. Engine was removed today and brought back to Raleigh. It will be inspected in the presence of FAA investigators.

2/24/2004: The engine was torn down and inspected. A gear connected to the crankshaft was broken. The gear drove the cam shaft, the magneto, and the fuel pump. There is a backup fuel pump, but since the cam shaft wasn't turning, the engine could not fire. This caused the engine failure, and since the prop was windmilling, it caused a backfire. The backfire busted the carb heat shroud. The backup fuel pump was pumping fuel through the carburator, and as a result, through the hose attached to the carburator heat shroud directly onto the pilot side of the cowling and out the side of the airplane (it should have been connected to the carburator heat shroud, but that blew up because of the backfire). The busted heat shroud might have been scraping against the exhaust pipe creating sparks, which possibly ignited the fire.
Estimated cost of repair: too much for the credit card.

Insurance does not cover the engine, unless there is a crash or prop strike, then they cover the engine breakdown, and any engine damage caused directly by the landing - but not the cause of the engine failure itself. They will cover the cosmetic damage and the damage caused by the fire. Ouch. Physical damage to the plane is minimal compared to the engine - damage to the engine is about 6 times the cost of damage to the plane itself. There was no damage incurred as a result of the landing. The insurance company - AIG - has been very helpful so far, and is working with me to determine exactly what will be covered, which will be roughly 25% of the total cost of repair - my penalty for safe emergency landing is 75% of the cost. Note to self: Next time, aim for the ditch, get the prop strike, which will ultimately cover 90% or more of the repair cost.

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Chronological Pictures (click for full size)

Initial Touchdown Point. Plane path from Touchdown point to end of landing roll - 240 feet. The initial touchdown point is almost dead center at the very bottom of this picture. The guys in the background are the FAA investigators and mechanic. The paved road where the truck is parked will be my runway, once the engine is repaired Me and the plane.
Sheriff and HP taped the scene to protect the plane. Breaking into a plane is a felony... Engine view after cowling was removed. The hoses are supposed to be orange. Note the hose in the lower right hand corner that is almost burned through. It is attached to the fuel pump, which connected to another 36 gallons of fuel remaining in the wing tanks. That's the scary part. Carberator heat shroud and hose - the thick orange hose in the middle (at the bottom) connects to the carburator. This would have supplied the fuel for the fire. It should be orange inside as well.
The electric fuel pump housing and fuel pump are on the left, the right side is the beginning of the fuselage just under the pilot's window. Pieces of plane on hangar floor - just beginning engine breakdown Rear panel removed exposing crankshaft, camshaft, and magneto gears - note the missing half of the gear in the upper left of this picture.
Closeup of the gear that caused the engine out. The crankshaft gear is at the bottom right, the camshaft gear at the top, and the mag should have connected to this gear at about the 9 o'clock position. When this gear stopped turning, so did the camshaft, fuel pump, and left magneto (which supplies the spark for the engine). Closeup of the right mag gear. The broken gear should look just like this. If this one had broken, the engine would have still run, but NO - the important one had to break. This is the bad gear (left mag, fuel pump, and cam).
The engine - stripped of most of it's worldly components. The cylinder on the left has been removed, exposing the piston. That round plate in the front is connected directly to the crankshaft, and is where the propeller is bolted on.

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