It was mid-August, 1991, and California had been baking under a seasonal high-pressure system, pushing temperatures well above the century mark from Baja to the Oregon border.
I’d departed early from my home base of Compton in the Los Angeles Basin to meet a SOCATA TBM-700 in Concord, a few miles inland from the coastal hills of Oakland.
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I’d climbed high in hopes of missing the major heat of the San Joaquin Valley on the outbound leg to Concord. The SOCATA (now known as Daher) team was on time, and I flew the TBM for two hours above the Sierra Nevada, then another hour for an air-to-air photo session above Lake Tahoe. After a brief interview with the SOCATA execs, I launched for home in early afternoon.
My Mooney wasn’t any happier with the hot weather than I was as I leveled at 11,500 feet. CHT and oil temps were running near the limits throughout the return leg. I was, too. My kingdom for an intercooler and an air conditioner.
Finally, I reduced power and started downhill into the Los Angeles area. The engine was still running hot but smooth, though I sensed an almost-imperceptible change in the feel of the airplane. It was nothing I could identify, just…something. Couldn’t tell if it was engine related or aerodynamic.
I had to make a quick stop in Long Beach, and there were seven airports between me and my destination, but KLGB was only 40 miles away, I rationalized. Still, the terrain below was every pilot’s nightmare, nothing but houses, shopping centers and crammed freeways.
The ATIS at Van Nuys Airport, a few miles north of Los Angeles, was reporting a surface temperature of 106 degrees. I scanned the engine analyzer and noted both the CHT and oil temperature had cooled slightly with the increased ram air of descent.
In almost 40 years of flying, I’d never bent an airplane, and my Mooney’s Lycoming still seemed to be running smooth as always. Conflicted by what I should do and what I wanted to do, I considered the universal mantra of aviation risk evaluation—“When in doubt, don’t.”
Should I make a precautionary landing at one of those seven airports to have the engine checked or press on?
I elected to continue.
I cruised through the Los Angeles VFR corridor, turned left above the San Diego Freeway, and checked the engine temps. Still in the green. I switched to Long Beach ATIS, then the tower, and requested a downwind entry to Runway 25L. The engine was still running smooth. The Garmin indicated the airport was only 10 nm away, and…
BANG! The whole airplane shook as the engine quit with a loud protest like a shotgun blast. The prop immediately seized with one blade at 11:00 o’clock. I suffered the usual five seconds of astonished disbelief before survival mode kicked in
Somehow, I cleverly guessed that a restart attempt was pointless. Nothing but houses and jammed freeways below. ”Long Beach, Mooney 65V just had a total engine failure,” I blurted into the microphone.
At least, the airplane was already configured for the emergency. Gear and flaps were up, the electric fuel pump was running and the fuel selector was on the fullest tank, though that didn’t matter much with what had to be a severely damaged engine. The prop control was full forward. I’d have preferred full aft, but again, the prop had seized when the engine blew. The cowl flaps were full open to help cool the engine, so I closed them for a tiny bit less drag.
Writing about it now in the comfort of my home office might suggest I was diligently following an emergency checklist, but that was far from the truth. I was just ad-libbing, scrambling to remember everything I’d ever read or written about avoiding getting killed by an engine out.
“Land straight ahead,” the traditional wisdom, was out of the question over the center of one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. There was nothing below but big buildings and heavy traffic. There were few flat, unoccupied, open spots.
Unfortunately, the Goodyear Blimp base, resplendent with several acres of green grass year round, was far behind me, and besides, there was a blimp parked there.
The choices were Long Beach or Compton airports. Long Beach appeared to be several miles farther away, but Compton was now behind and on my left.
A quick 20 degree turn toward Long Beach runway 7L for a straight-in, downwind approach would simplify things, but it looked too far away for an unintentional glider with only 2,000 feet of unused sky below. It would certainly make life tough for the controllers as traffic was landing and departing to the west. At least, if I did make it to the airport, I’d have a huge infield as a security blanket in case I couldn’t manage to hit a runway.
Compton was several miles closer, but it was an anomalous, uncontrolled airport, perched smack in the middle of the LA Basin, surrounded by 10 million people and at least a dozen airports, some of them, at one time or another, among the 10 busiest in the world.
Little orphan Compton offered refuge with a pair of parallel, 3,200-foot runways, a unicom and the usual complaining neighbors. Regrettably, it was 150 degrees behind me and totally surrounded by apartment buildings and private homes. I knew there were cinder block walls at both ends of the runways. If I undershot or overshot, I’d probably only get to do it once.
Years before, I’d done a story on how steep to bank without power for minimum altitude loss. The consensus seemed to be that 45 degrees was optimum. (My friends Rod Machado and Barry Schiff, both fanatical researchers on all things aviation, instructors, fellow writers and mentors, later verified that was correct.) If you need to make a significant turn power off, say 90 degrees or more, you’re better off to make it with 45 degrees than something less, such as standard rate. A shallower bank takes so long to complete that you actually lose more altitude than in a 45-degree banked turn.
The downside of the higher bank angle is the possibility of a high-speed stall. If I rolled into the bank and instinctively pulled back on the yoke and stalled the airplane at this low altitude, I might not have enough time to recover before I collided with something hard. In this case, if I did it right, it would get me turned toward Compton in minimum time.
Still, a 45-degree bank seemed much steeper than logic might dictate. I decided on Compton and wrapped the airplane hard to the left.
“Long Beach Tower, Mooney 65V is gonna try for Compton.”
Before the tower could answer, another voice came on the frequency, “Tower, this is LAPD Chopper 3. We have the Mooney in sight. We’ll keep you advised.”
I leveled the wings with the threshold for 25L straight ahead. The heat off the streets and houses below came boiling up to meet me. Aside from the stifling heat, it was a strange sensation, gliding silently toward the ground, no engine noise and very little wind noise, staring out at the single, immobilized prop blade and wondering if I’d made the wrong choice.
As I approached the airport, it looked as if I would run out of sky before I reached the runway. I was stubbornly holding the Mooney at its best glide speed, 70 knots, and Compton’s runway threshold was slowly rising on the windshield.
In other words, the airplane was gradually sinking below the optimum glide path. I fought the urge to pull back on the yoke. That would only make the situation worse.
I swam my way through the low-level chop toward the last cross street before the airport grounds, waited as long as I dared, then flipped the gear switch down, grateful that Mooneys have one of the fastest electric gear operating systems of any general aviation aircraft.
I was so close to the cinder blocks, I was afraid the extended gear might hit them and push me over onto my back. Fortunately, I cleared the wall by what couldn’t have been more than a few feet, and the gear light turned green a second later. The airplane slammed down on the grass just short of the runway. It made a huge bounce up onto the asphalt and rolled out as if this was a normal landing.
I made the first turnoff to the left, rolled onto the ramp and stopped.
Apparently, the LAPD helicopter had only been a short distance behind me. As I sat in the airplane, sweating profusely, trying to stop hyperventilating and staring at the stopped prop blade, the police chopper landed next to me. His observer jumped out, ran over and asked if I was okay. I nodded. He said, “Good job. We’ll advise Long Beach that you’re safely on the ground and in good shape.”
I mumbled, “Thanks.” He smiled, gave me a thumbs up and ran back to the helicopter.
Suddenly, it didn’t seem so hot. By some miracle of providence, I was still alive, my airplane was in one piece and I was totally alone on the ramp, listening to the helicopter fly away to the west. No one was in the small terminal building, the fuel island was shut down, and there was not a soul in sight on the ramp.
The bottom line was $30,000 for a new engine. Since there was no damage to the aircraft or airport and no injuries, the FAA didn’t even ask for a report.
This was my first total engine failure, and I’d handled it poorly, even if the outcome was successful. In retrospect, I’d made at least one stupid decision that only I knew about, neglecting to make a precautionary landing.
Fortunately, it wasn’t my day to pay for my poor choices.
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.