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#147 If Your Engine Quits When You Need It Most

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by Lawrence Lansburgh


My engine quit when I needed it most, on takeoff. I was 300 feet in the air, nose high, with the entire runway behind me. One specific thing prevented a wreck. I had rehearsed.

On the day of the engine failure, it seemed that a master cartoonist had used the bright springtime sky as a canvas, then added the shining puffy clouds just for me. A gentle and honest breeze out of the west flowed straight down the dirt strip. As eager as I was to roar into the sky, I did my usual unhurried preflight. But no preflight could have revealed the condition that was going to stop the engine.


I wiggled into my parachute, pulled on my leather flying helmet, and eased myself down into the seat of my Fly Baby. With its open cockpit, single seat, and low wing, that airplane always reminded me of a flying kayak. The Fly Baby is a tail dragger with a fabric skin over a wooden frame. Mine had a 65-horsepower Continental engine and no starter.

I was all strapped in with goggles in place, and an airport buddy pulled the wooden prop through. The engine started easily.

The run-up complete, I took the active runway. In Cessnas, Citabrias, and Decathlons, I’ve found that it’s the moderate use of the thigh muscles that keeps you heading straight down the runway. With your feet on the Fly Baby’s rudder pedals, all you have to do is think about your big toes. The rudder has that much authority.

The wheels left the ground, and I accelerated in ground effect. Then I eased the nose up. If my engine had quit a little sooner than it actually did, my choices would have been limited to contact with inappropriate objects—buildings, perfectly restored vintage aircraft, cars in the parking lot, maybe a family with small children there to look at the old airplanes. The airport buildings slid beneath me, and I was glad to be rid of the previous moment’s unpleasant possibilities.

A few seconds later, the engine quit. The prop was turning slowly, but that comforting roar was gone.

An unpleasant feeling hatched in my solar plexus, moved up through my chest, and lodged in my throat. I suppose that this is how panic must feel, but panic itself was absent. It was absent because, like any conscientious pilot, I had rehearsed for this very moment.

Rehearsal dictated that my first action was to lower the nose to the airspeed for best glide. Rehearsal eliminated the temptation to turn back to the airport. With that big rudder, a panic-inspired stomp on a pedal would have been the main ingredient in an instant spin. Spinning a Fly Baby into the ground would make a small—but fatal—crater.

So my only choice was to descend straight ahead and aim at the cow pasture. I hoped I could find a smooth patch of ground and avoid smacking into a cow. Cows are very expensive.

Oddly, as I was going down, it occurred to me that when a Fly Baby’s engine stops, the airplane should have a different name. The cooling fins on its engine stick out into the breeze. The airplane has an angular windscreen, flying wires above and below the wings, fixed gear with no streamlining, and wheels with no pants. This collection of parts moving through the air ensures that the airplane has a very steep glide angle. I decided to rename it the “Drag Queen.”

But I was flying a simple aircraft. Although contact with the earth (and maybe also with a cow) was in my very near future, I did have a few seconds to check some things.

Fuel valve. It was on.

Mags. The setting was on “Both.”

Mixture. It was rich.

The only engine control left was the throttle. It was full forward, right where it was supposed to be for a climb. I moved it back, then moved it back some more. The prop was still moving, and the engine coughed to life.

But that actually complicated things. I no longer had the simple imperative of doing the best engineless landing I could. My choices had expanded, and now my thinking had to expand as well. I could still land in the field, with partial power to give me more control over my rate of descent. Or I could try to climb. Altitude brings options.

I chose to abandon the cows and begin a slow rate of climb—very slow because I had an engine that would quit if I pushed the throttle too far forward. To keep the pasture as an option, I circled using a small angle of bank. After a long time, my sputtering engine gave me enough altitude to enter the pattern. Even if the engine quit for good, I was sure I could land on the runway, and even walk away unhurt.

The engine didn’t quit. And since a go-around was out of the question, partial power was all I needed for my landing. I did the best three-point landing I have ever done. Wouldn’t you know it, no one was there to see it.

The engine was still running, and I taxied to the hangar area and shut down.

We discovered that some nameless gunk in the fuel line had reduced the line’s diameter. That smaller channel had let enough fuel through for a taxi and for a run-up. It even let enough fuel through to propel me to a point 300 feet above the ground. But after that, the engine’s demand for gas exceeded the supply, and things became suddenly quiet.

I wouldn’t wish an engine failure on anyone. But mine made me a better pilot because it proved the value of those “what if” scenarios that every pilot must consider.

In my mind I’d gone through an engine failure on takeoff. I’d also rehearsed in the air. An instructor’s help is always a good idea, but the single seat in my airplane made that impossible. When I was familiarizing myself with my new airplane, I went to a safe altitude and did simulated takeoffs— nose high, full power, the proper climb airspeed. Then I pulled the power back to idle, lowered the nose, and noticed where the horizon was for best glide speed. When the engine really did quit, I didn’t have to wonder where to put the horizon.

Ask any actor or musician about the importance of rehearsal. Or, for that matter, ask any pilot who has had an engine failure on takeoff. Rehearsal is what let me and my airplane return on another day to another spring-bright sky.

On that day, with a new fuel line, the engine roared happily for the entire flight. Once again, I was in a flying kayak looking at puffy white cartoon clouds.

I moved the stick to the right and thought about the big toe on my right foot. To see the world in a steep turn from a low-wing aircraft with an open cockpit is to know one of the joys of flight—and for me in that moment, to appreciate the benefits of rehearsal.