Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Engine Reliability

General-aviation piston engines are simpler and more reliable than other power plants...most of the time

Many of us have had this happen at one time or another. You're at a dinner party or other non-aviation social get-together, and someone introduces you with a variation of, "This is Charlie Speedbird. He's a pilot and flies HIS OWN plane."

Though I'm certainly happy that circumstances have allowed me to become an aviator and somehow manage to buy my own airplane, humble as it is, I always wince a little when I hear that comment, because I know what's probably coming next.

I can almost be guaranteed sometime in the next few minutes, I'll hear someone ask, "What do you do when the engine quits?"

I know it won't work to respond with some smart-aleck remark, such as, "Pray" or "Wish I was somewhere else," or simply suggest, "Aircraft engines don't quit." Too many folks have read spectacularized stories in their local newspapers about airplanes that fell to Earth. "A three-engine Cessna Cherokee crashed last night only 10 miles from an elementary school, where children would have been playing if it hadn't been 2:00 a.m. in midsummer. No flight plan had been filed, so the pilot obviously was lost."

Yes, engines do fail, but the probability is so small that it's statistically irrelevant, assuming you don't do anything stupid. Ignore pilot-induced engine failures—overleaning, running the engine out of fuel or oil—and the chances of a disabling failure in a properly maintained engine is essentially nil.

For better or worse, I made several dozen trips across the Pacific in the last 20 years, flying mostly single-engine Mooneys, Bonanzas and Malibus, and I'm a little staggered by the statistics of those deliveries.

One of my regular rides was a new Mooney Ovation, usually flying from Kerrville, Texas, to Sydney, Australia. On a typical Australian trip, I'd log 13 hours from Santa Barbara to Hawaii, another 11 hours to Majuro, Marshall Islands (Majuro had avgas until a few years ago), then seven hours to Honiara, Solomon Islands (the infamous Henderson Field on Guadalcanal), and another eight hours to Sydney. That's about 40 hours total at 2,500 rpm, roughly six million engine revolutions between Santa Barbara and Brisbane, 6,500 nautical miles, most often without a single cough.

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