On November 4, 2011 I was flying my Jabiru J250SP light sport airplane to Tyler, TX with my childhood friend Bill Berger to visit our friends John and Becky Davis. I’ve known John since second grade (1967); Bill and Becky since seventh grade. John and I roomed together in college, and I was best man at his wedding. When Bill suggested we fly down to visit, I immediately said yes.
We stopped in Springfield, MO for lunch and fuel. The Jabiru has been using a little more than the normal amount of oil lately, so I was careful to check it. I added about a half quart and we took off for Tyler.
A couple hours later, about 45 minutes from Tyler, the engine started running rough. My first reaction was to simultaneously pull up on the controls to slow to our best glide speed and look outside for a place to land. A quick glance revealed we were over the west end of a rough-looking pasture carved out of heavy woods. Assured that we had options for landing should it be necessary, I turned my attention back to the engine.
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There’s not a lot to do in our little airplane when the engine is running rough. There is only a throttle control, no mixture or prop levers to play with. I pulled the carb heat lever in case the problem was carburetor ice. There was no change in RPM. About then a warning light came on, indicating low oil pressure. I looked at the engine monitor and noted that cylinder 3 was significantly colder than the other five cylinders.
About then the prop came to a sudden stop and the cabin went quiet. I have often heard the stories of the sudden quiet when the engine quits, but frankly it wasn’t that startling. Our Bose noise-canceling headsets minimize engine noise to begin with, and there was still the sound of air rushing past the airplane. And frankly, I wasn’t really thinking about how noisy it was or wasn’t.
The interesting thing about the engine stopping was what it did to my state of mind. I had been somewhat panicked, trying to find a solution to a problem that I couldn’t really identify and for which I had few options even if I did know what was happening under the cowling. Once the engine stopped, the problem of fixing it was solved. I no longer was trying to solve a rough-running engine using only the throttle, carb heat, and mag switch. Instead, I was landing an airplane — something I’ve done thousands of times (successfully, no less).
I said to Bill, “OK, now we’re going to land.”
Now a lot of people are confused about what happens to an airplane when its engine quits. “Did you just dive into the ground?” No. When the engine quits, the plane becomes a glider. It flies just like it did before, but there’s no power so you can’t climb. “So you float to the ground like a parachute?” No. You just keep flying, but you can’t maintain your altitude or go up. You can only go down. It’s like your car when you run out of gas. You can still steer, and if you’re going downhill you might be able to travel quite a while before the car stops on its own. An airplane without power from the engine goes “downhill” until it hits something or you land. You can still steer right and left. You can descend faster or slower by changing the pitch (point the nose up or down) but you can’t fly level or climb (well, you can climb a little but you’ll slow down and quickly lose whatever you gained).
An airplane has an ideal glide speed. You pull back on the stick (pitch up) to slow down or push forward (pitch down) to speed up. If you slow down too much the wings won’t be able to hold the airplane up, the nose will suddenly drop, and you’ll descend quickly until you pick up enough speed for the wings to fly. If you speed up too much by pushing forward on the stick, you’ll descend faster and give up altitude, which reduces your options for a landing site. In our airplane, when you are at the ideal glide speed you’ll go about two nautical miles (2.3 statute miles) for every thousand feet you lose in altitude. This limits how far you can glide. Of course these are ideal numbers; in reality you won’t hit that perfect speed all the time and every time you turn right or left you descend faster.
I had been pressing buttons on the multifunction display to locate the nearest airport. There wasn’t much nearby. I found Mt Pleasant, TX, which was 19.2 nautical miles south. We were at 4500′ MSL over terrain that was probably 500′ MSL. That gave me only about 3-5 minutes of glide time at best, which would be about 5-8 miles (again, at best) of range. I quickly eliminated gliding to an airport as an option, without bothering to do the math. And the field you’re over is better than the one a couple miles away, so this one was going to have to do.
We were over a gravel road. It was not a gravel road like we might think of back home in Iowa, but a private road that was probably used by the ranch to reach their herds. The piece of road we were over ran south then turned east. It was surrounded by open fields covered by some kind of scattered brush and a few small trees. I turned left to go back to the north end of the road as we glided down. I punched “7700” into the transponder to indicate an emergency and made a call on 121.5 MHz, which is an emergency frequency.
“Any station monitoring, this is N57CE, 19.2 miles north northeast of Mt Pleasant, TX, 3800 feet descending, engine is out, declaring an emergency.”
No response. I continue my turn to the north to come back around to line up with the farm road. I repeated my call and heard a response from ATC, who was talking to another aircraft: “… tell that aircraft to contact Center on 130.2 if possible”. Without waiting for the call I tuned to 130.2 and contacted the local Air Traffic Control Center.
I gave the controller our position. He asked the ominous question, “How many souls on board?” I responded, “Two” and tried not to think about the grim “heaven’s census taker” feel that question has. Center offered to find us a nearby airport, but by this time I had eliminated the road and we had turned east to land in the open field. I said something like, “We’re only about 500 feet off the ground. We’re in a single-engine airplane and our only engine is out. We will be landing here very shortly.” He asked if there were any roads or towns nearby. I glanced at ForeFlight running on my iPad. There were three small towns in our vicinity. The biggest of these appeared to be Talco, TX. I estimated we were about five miles east-northeast of Talco. Center asked us to call them from the ground if possible and let them know the outcome.
As we got closer to the ground I noticed a row of trees and brush running perpendicular to our path. It reminded me of how vegetation might grow along a fence row. It was sparse, but it formed a straight line across the field. Even though I couldn’t see a fence there, it was reasonable to believe one might be there. I pulled up to slow us down and to hold us off the ground as long as possible, while at the same time hoping it would be enough to clear the fence. I tried to imagine what hitting a fence might feel like and decided we could probably survive it; in fact it might slow us down and keep us from running into something more solid further along our path.
I aimed for a gap in the fence-line vegetation. As we got closer it was clear there was no fence, and shortly after we cleared that line we touched down.
The sound of the wheels on the rough ground was pretty loud. Shortly after touching down we apparently struck a thorn bush with the left wing tip. It stripped the lens off our position/strobe light. We wouldn’t actually realize we did this until three days later when we noticed the missing lens while disassembling the airplane to load it on a truck. Immediately after hitting the bush, we went over a small rise and all was quiet as we were airborne again for a second or two. Then back on the ground and rolling. I thought about applying the brakes but wasn’t sure how effective they’d be and didn’t want to risk any loss of control. We fairly quickly rolled to a stop.
I looked at Bill and said something like “That was interesting!” We gave each other a high five and expressed thanks to God for a safe landing.
I tried to contact Center but apparently they couldn’t hear me due to our being on the ground. But another aircraft responded and I reported we were safe on the ground, no damage to the airplane, and no injuries. He relayed that information to Center, who asked about our position. I located the GPS coordinates on the multifunction display and reported those to the aircraft to be relayed to ATC.
We secured the airplane and got out. We were in a large pasture surrounded by trees. The ground was uneven with clumps of grass and scattered small mounds like the one we had gone over that lifted us back in the air during our landing. Some 25-30 yards beyond where we stopped, the ground became very uneven. We certainly would’ve collapsed the nose gear had we gotten into that area. We could see cows in the distance. Fortunately none of those were along our path.
We walked around the airplane and found no damage. We wouldn’t discover the missing strobe light lens until three days later. Funny how you can look at something and not see it.
I called my wife and let her know the situation. Bill called John and Becky.
Within a few minutes a Beech King Air flew over at low altitude just west of us. We assumed they were looking for us. I turned the radio back on and made a call to the “aircraft overhead” and let them know they had flown past us. He started a turn to the right and asked me to tell him when to roll out of his turn. I let him know when he was pointing right at us and then called again when he was right overhead. He said he had confirmed our GPS coordinates and was going to relay them to ATC. I gave them my cell phone number to give to authorities so they could call us if needed. ATC asked him to confirm that nobody was hurt, which he did.
John called and asked what our plans were. We discussed having him drive up to pick us up. Since nobody had arrived to “rescue” us yet, we weren’t sure where to have him meet us. Our conversation was interrupted by a call from the sheriff’s department. She asked about the location of the airplane and I tried to describe it on a map by drawing lines between nearby cities. She confirmed that they had the GPS coordinates — the trick was getting the trucks to that location. “We know where you are; we just don’t know how to get there.”
I returned to John and suggested he drive to Talco to meet us. It would take him an hour and a half to get there. We had touched down around 4:20; now it was about 4:45.
For some reason, we thought it might help if we walked to a farm house we had seen during our maneuvering to land. I left a note in the plane and we set out. After walking about 20 minutes we figured out that the house was much further away than we thought. We turned around and headed back to the plane.
During this walk I called my dad to tell him about the situation. He and I own the airplane together. We assumed the plane would have to be trucked out. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain to some guy whose only qualification was that he has a commercial drivers license how to remove the wings and load this thing on his flatbed truck. Especially since I’ve never done it and have no idea how to do it. Dad said he’d call the Jabiru factory in Shelbyville, TN and see if they had any suggestions.
At 5:25 on our way back to the airplane we saw a helicopter circling the site. It had been just over an hour since we landed. They dropped down to a few feet off the ground and apparently determined we weren’t there. I regretted leaving the plane. (Rule #1 of survival: Stay where you are and let help come to you!) He departed to the east but then came back and went west. We later learned he was trying to figure out where the rescue vehicles were and how to direct them to us.
The sheriff’s office called again and asked about our location and if we knew of any roads that would get them close to us. It occurred to me that I had my iPad with me, so I brought up the Maps application, asked it to locate us, then sent a link to that location to the sheriff at his personal email address. I don’t know if that helped any, but it sure was handy to have such devices available — and for once in my life to have an AT&T signal when I needed it.
One of the interesting things we noticed was how easy it was to know if a passing aircraft or vehicle was looking for us. Our location was so remote that anytime you heard a noise that wasn’t a cow mooing you could assume it was someone coming to find us. We heard the helicopter coming back. They landed a hundred feet or so away. It was a medical evac unit sent out to find us. Bill went over and talked to them while I finished my email.
The chopper pilot told us they had been flying back and forth trying to find a way for the fire department and sheriff deputies to find us. They told us to sit tight and wait.
As the chopper was leaving a woman drove up on an ATV. She was Joyce Wilson. Joyce’s husband Bill owns Wilson Combat (www.wilsoncombat.com) and she is the Executive Director of the International Defensive Pistol Association (www.idpa.com). She and her husband operate a ranch just northeast of our landing site. Joyce is an instrument rated pilot and owns a Cessna 182.
Joyce had received a call from someone who had heard the GPS coordinates the sheriffs department was looking for and determined they were near Joyce’s ranch. She and her ranch manager Jeffery had set out on ATVs to look for us. We later learned there was a small army of locals on ATVs scouring the area to find us. After locating us, Joyce made some calls and soon many of them had found their way to us.
At 5:59, about an hour and forty minutes after we landed, I heard a sound on the road. I looked and saw a squad car, then two, then three, then saw the fire department truck leading the way. Trailing those four vehicles were several other pickup trucks and ATVs. We told our story to each of the deputies so they could fill out their paper work. Everyone expressed their amazement that we could survive such a harrowing event.
The lead deputy insisted on calling the FAA, which Joyce and I both felt was unnecessary. This tied them up for quite a while, and nothing else was really happening. I remember saying at one point, “We either need to order up a keg and some pizzas or we need to leave.” Given how hard it was for everyone to find us, we opted for leaving. Bill and I unpacked the airplane and transferred everything to two of the sheriff’s vehicles.
As we were leaving, the FAA called and had some questions, which I answered briefly and factually. I’m still not convinced it was necessary, and was disappointed the deputy had chose to involve the federal government. He told me I couldn’t move the plane until they visited the site and said it was OK.
I told him that the locals had trouble finding us even when they knew the area. There was no way a bureaucrat from Dallas was going to be able to locate the airplane. Furthermore, there was no damage and nobody was hurt. We weren’t obligated to report what was essentially just an off-field landing. We settled on me sending him some pictures, which I said I would do after consulting my attorney. (He never asked again, so I never sent the pictures.)
Bill and I each got into a deputy’s vehicle and we drove to Talco — about five miles as the crow flies but two or three times that on the ranch roads we had to follow to get to the main road. It took 30 minutes to get to the Exxon station that is Talco, TX, where John was waiting to drive us to Tyler.
There are two psychological surprises for me. First was the sense of relief and calm that came when the engine died. The rough-running engine was more stressful than the sight of the stopped prop. Once the engine stopped, my options were narrowed to one: Landing.
The second unexpected response was the disappearance of confidence I have in the Jabiru engine. This was actually the second engine failure we’ve had. The first engine lasted about 60 hours before a piston failed. My dad discovered that problem while taking off one day. The engine just didn’t seem right, so he aborted his take-off just before lifting off. The replacement engine they sent us had experienced the same problem during its initial testing after being mounted on a new airplane. They replaced the engine on that airplane, then replaced the failed piston in the bad engine and sent it to us. They assured us the replacement was like new, but then our last “new engine” (which really was new) had failed after only 60 hours. So we’ve owned two Jabiru engines: One that failed catastrophically after 60 hours, and one that failed catastrophically after 2.5 hours and again after 480 hours. That’s an average of 180 hours between catastrophic failures. At that rate we can expect a forced landing in a cow pasture every 18 months. It’s difficult to imagine what they can do to turn what appears to be a problem engine into one in which I can have confidence.
Additionally, I have come to some resolutions with respect to flying. First is to remember to pull the checklist even though it doesn’t seem necessary. While it wouldn’t have helped me restart the engine in this case, it would’ve reminded me to turn off the fuel, mags and maybe open the doors before landing. While neither of these proved necessary (we didn’t catch fire and we didn’t bend any metal causing the doors to become jammed shut), there might have been something on there that would’ve either solved the initial problem or prevented a problem on the ground.
Second, I want to add some suggestions to the engine-out landing checklist, such as looking for civilization and landing somewhere near it. It would’ve been a little easier had I turned toward Talco so we could’ve walked to the Exxon station instead of requiring helicopters, local residents, and deputies from two counties to spend an hour looking for us. (In retrospect, however, landing options were not as plentiful to our west, toward Talco.)
Finally, I want to develop an “after a forced landing” checklist that includes instructions on how to locate your GPS coordinates (not straightforward on our system), a suggestion to do a complete “pre-flight” inspection after landing to check for damage, and a reminder to stay with the airplane no matter what your shell-shocked brain tells you about how close you are to that house you flew over.
We’ve been mentioned on the interwebz: Listen to the guys at www.uncontrolledairspace.com chat about our off-field landing: MP3 of podcast #263. Fast-forward to around 58 minutes if you’re in a hurry.