I guess no pilot expects to utter those words, but on this warm and sunny November day the words, unfortunately, were quite appropriate.
My wife, two daughters and I got up bright and early one Saturday morning for our vacation to Orlando, to be followed by a week in Disney World. A storm had passed through the previous evening and left a clear sky across our proposed route from Hanover County (FOSF) to Kissimmee (KISM) with a lunch stop in Savannah, Georgia (KSAV).
It was fairly breezy on the ground and winds at altitude were anywhere from 30-40 knots on the nose, so we were in for a longer day than originally thought. We packed up 86DR, our Bellanca Super Viking affectionately known as Romeo, and were on our way. The leg to SAV was a nice, uneventful flight. The best part of the flight was having to throttle back to stay behind a Mooney over North Carolina! We weren’t in any big hurry, so we just relaxed
We had our sumptuous lunch at the FBO in SAV, topped off the wing tanks and preflighted the plane. Oil was around 9½ quarts, so we were good to go. Taxied to the run-up area and ran through the checklist. Everything was fine—gauges in the green.
We got our clearance and took off around 1:20 p.m., then headed on to Orlando with routing over Brunswick, Georgia. We had been in the air around 30 minutes when my wife and I felt the engine shudder. Hmm, what was that? Must have been slight chop from forecast turbulence, we thought. I checked the instruments—still in the green.
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A couple minutes later—or sooner, I don’t recall exact times—I notice oil pressure had gone to zero. It was a steam gauge, so like any optimist, I tapped the glass and hoped the needle would pop back to the green. It didn’t.
Being on an IFR flight plan, I told Jacksonville that I was going to put down at the closest airport and check out my oil pressure. I could see Brunswick Golden Isles at 12 o’clock around 10-12 miles away. No problem, it was probably the gauge. Just hoped the shop was open on a Saturday.
No more than a minute or two after that, oil and smoke started coming from the cowl. I declared an emergency with Jacksonville. My wife quickly retrieved the fire extinguisher and ensured the kids were strapped in securely. I still thought at 6,000 feet, we should be able to glide to the airport should the engine quit.
A short time later, the engine completely seized. With the wind at altitude and on the ground at 17 knots gusting to 22 from the west (according to the weather at SAV), it became apparent we wouldn’t make the airport. I now had to pick the best place to put Romeo down. The choices weren’t the best: below us was a very wide river, what looked like some sort of field and dense pine forest. I opted for the field area—which turned out to be a saltwater marsh.
I continued to inform Jacksonville of our position and intentions as we glided across the river with plenty of altitude. I have to admit, it was a bit of an eerie sensation not hearing that big-bore Continental as we went through the sky. I selected what looked like a good spot for my imaginary runway and ran a “normal” pattern, entering on a base leg. Final was directly into the last reported wind direction.
As we continued on final, I kept the speed to a minimum, using the stall warning horn as my guide. I flew between a couple trees that were previously hidden in the tall grass and heard the grass touching the plane. “Keep the nose up,” I kept telling myself. The strong headwinds floated us for a bit and kept our ground speed down. We continued sinking, and I waited for the mains to touch—never felt it. The next thing I knew, we came to a sudden stop—probably 45 kts to 0 in less than 20 feet. Seems the muck of the marsh kind of grabbed hold of us.
Smoke was coming from the cowl, the left wing was partially torn away, and torn skin exposed the gas tanks. The elevator and right wing had some major damage as well, and the cowl was buried about 2 feet into the mud. We apparently landed in a small gulley. Luckily, the fuselage was pretty much intact.
My wife hurriedly got the kids out of the plane despite what turned out to be a broken collarbone, and I shut down everything and followed soon after. We trekked about 50 yards from the plane and mashed down a 10-foot diameter circle in the 6-foot grass and counted our blessings.
The kids were basically uninjured with only minor bruises from the seat belts. I was doing pretty well, although I was a bit banged up from smashing my chest into the yoke and knees into the lower panel.
We heard search airplanes up within 15 minutes. What a great sound! After about an hour, we were being circled by a Civil Air Patrol plane. Soon we spotted a helicopter coming right toward us. Someone from the Georgia Highway patrol dropped down on a line and checked out everyone. The Coast Guard followed with two large choppers and lifted us out. The kids thought this was “way cool.”
And, yes, we even continued on to Disney World—by car.
My instructor for private and instrument stressed emergency procedures throughout my training such that the procedures were in the forefront on my brain at all times. He drilled me on always having a suitable landing spot selected if the engine were to suddenly quit. I shared this lesson with my wife, and on trips she would frequently turn to me and ask, “Where would we put down if the engine quit?” I knew that I’d better have a good answer. So when Romeo lost his engine, I didn’t hesitate on what to do—I knew where to put down and how best to do it.