The good news is there’s next to no chance you’ll ever lose an engine, assuming you don’t do anything dumb. It does happen, as we all read infrequently in our local newspaper. The statistical probability of a nonpilot-induced engine failure may be practically infinitesimal, but it becomes 100% when it happens to you.
For that reason, most of us at least consider the possibility of losing an engine, even if we don’t practice emergency procedures very often. Think about it: When was the last time you envisioned what you’d do on your next takeoff if the engine quit cold at 500 feet?
Fortunately, that almost never happens with a PT6A on the nose. Propjet engines are so ridiculously reliable that many pilots select a single-engine turboprop over a piston twin, simply because one turbine is statistically safer than two piston mills. In fact, in those exceedingly rare cases when a turbine engine does fail, it often makes headlines in the aviation community, simply because it’s such a rare event.
Among the piston crowd, there’s at least one production airplane that flies behind your choice of a JetPROP or traditional piston engine. Piper’s Malibu Mirage and Meridian are very similar aircraft with a minimum of changes to accommodate burning jet fuel. In fairness, the PA-46 is extremely reliable, but nothing beats a turbine.
With only 15,000 hours in my logbooks, I’ve had a grand total of 12 engine failures that took me to the ground, maybe 13 if you consider that one of them was a twin Cessna that lost both engines over Tchibanga, Gabon, Africa. In all those incidents, I’ve only lost one airplane, a Piper Lance, following a complete power loss over Ethiopia.
Certainly, part of the reason I’ve had a dozen problems is that I’ve been delivering partially compromised single- and twin-piston and turboprop aircraft all over the world since 1976, but I’ve finally wised up and stopped hitting myself in the head with a hammer. I made perhaps my final international ferry flight last year, in that instance delivering a Grand Caravan from Long Beach, Calif., to Seoul, Korea.
However, this isn’t about war stories or, “Can you top this?” Instead, several failures were related directly or indirectly to the nature of ferry flying. An old mechanic named Butch once told me there were only two causes of engine failure: “If it ain’t fuel, it’s ignition. If it ain’t ignition, it’s fuel.”
In one case, I was delivering a near-new Malibu Mirage from Sendai, Japan, to Aachen, Germany, the long way around, 11,000 nm eastbound across the Pacific to Guam, Majuro, Honolulu and California, then across the U.S. and the northern route over Greenland and Iceland to Germany.
This trip was a little different in that I had agreed to transport the father of the former Japanese owner to Tarawa, Kiribati, site of the first American/Japanese land battle on the road back after Pearl Harbor. The old gentleman had fought in Tarawa and was one of the few survivors of the battle. He spoke very little English, and my Japanese was nonexistent, but he was courteous and friendly, and we managed to get along fairly well, though he was obviously not comfortable in a single-engine airplane—piston or turbine.
After a day of delay to let a typhoon blow south over Iwo Jima, we made the first leg, 1,400 nm from Sendai to Guam, without incident. The next morning, we launched early for Majuro, Marshall Islands, 1,600 nm east. I climbed slowly to 19,000 feet over the Pacific, let everything settle down and stabilize, then switched to the 200-gallon neoprene ferry tank.
Within about two minutes, the engine lost all power, and I immediately switched back to the left-wing tank. The old gentleman began talking excitedly in Japanese, pointing at the instrument panel and looking behind us toward Guam.
I turned back toward the island and advised Guam departure of our problem just in time to have the engine roar back to life. Air in the lines wasn’t unusual, but I had checked the ferry tank on the ground, and everything seemed good.
After a few minutes of running smoothly, I turned back on course to Majuro, and the Japanese man continued to talk to me. I waited a few minutes, then switched back to the ferry system, only to have the Continental stagger and quit again.
That was enough for me. I returned to Guam on a wing tank, and my reluctant passenger was obviously satisfied. The shop found some problems with a semi-kinked fuel line, and the airplane was ready to go two days later, but right after landing, the old gentleman bowed deeply and explained through an interpreter that he would fly the airlines to Tarawa and that I was “very brave.” Later, after he was gone, my interpreter told me what he really said was that I was “crazy as hell.”
A&E Butch was right again on another failure, this time a near-complete loss of power in a twin. Fifteen years earlier, I was flying the first international ferry of a Cessna Crusader from Wichita, Kansas, to Johannesburg, South Africa, in company with a new Seneca and a Mooney 231.
On the leg between Libreville, Gabon, and Windhoek, Namibia, I had just leveled at 11,000 feet north of the mouth of the Congo River, punched up the autopilot and was about to reach for the mixtures when the left engine coughed and began to spool down. Before I could even begin to grasp the situation, the right engine also staggered, and the Crusader began to yaw back and forth as power surged erratically.
Incredibly, I was losing both engines. I switched both selectors from the ferry system back to the main wing tanks, but without effect. Fuel pumps didn’t help, either. The autopilot kicked off, and the Crusader began to descend toward the equatorial double-canopy rain forest. Miraculously, I was near a short emergency strip, and I spotted it as I passed through 8,000 feet, dropping toward the jungle like a three-ton water buffalo.
The engines were struggling to run, and I finally throttled them back to a ragged idle to stop the erratic yawing. The early morning rain had left the ground puddle wet, and the Crusader splashed a wave of brown mud high in the air as I touched down hard and slid off the makeshift runway into an open space at the runway’s end.
Of course, the problem had to be fuel, and it had to be related to the ferry system. The Mooney pilot and I decowled both Continentals and checked the spider filters in the fuel injection system. As it turned out, a fabric material from a fuel trailer in the Madeira Islands had disintegrated and been introduced into the aft fuselage ferry tank (that can’t be sump-checked), pumped forward to the fuel splitter and distributed to each engine’s spider filter where it promptly constricted fuel flow to both engines.
We cleaned the filters, blew the fuel lines clear as best we could and returned to Libreville. The next day, we drained every drop into barrels, and some 30 local airport workers happily strained it through chamois into their cars’ gas tanks.
That was obviously another fuel problem, but the next incident was neither fuel nor ignition. I had picked up a 421 in Subic Bay, Philippines, been forced to leave it in Guam for two months because of a typhoon-damaged avgas tank, finally relaunched to Majuro, overnighted and was ready for the 2,000 nm leg to Honolulu the next day, or so I thought.
Have you planned where you’ll land if the engine quits on takeoff?
Pretakeoff checks complete, I finally took the active runway 07 at Majuro. The island’s single runway is built on a rare straight portion of a curved, half-moon coral atoll with the Pacific Ocean no more than 50 yards away on both sides of the runway. Though the runway is long and wide (8,000×100 feet), losing an engine below Vmc could easily result in a saltwater bath and a totaled airplane. Additionally, “my” 421 was nearly a ton over gross, so I knew performance would be marginal.
Power came up smoothly on both engines. I rotated and felt the airplane lift off sluggishly. Five seconds later, just as I was reaching for the gear handle, the right engine suddenly spooled back to idle. The airplane yawed hard right, and I slammed the left throttle against the rear stop. I planted the airplane back onto the asphalt and jumped on the brakes. There was no chance of flying on one engine under the circumstances. I skidded to a stop and turned off the runway 50 feet before the end.
The problem turned out to be a broken throttle linkage. The 421 had been parked in the open for two months on Guam, one of the most humid environments on the planet. (The U.S. military tests all its new jungle gear in Guam.)
Another African surprise wasn’t so forgiving, and this one was also neither fuel nor ignition. The California-based Piper Lance bound for Nairobi, Kenya, had been a complete rebuild—new panel, paint and interior—and the only thing that hadn’t been overhauled was the engine. Two excellent shops had agreed the 300-hour factory overhaul was in excellent condition.
On the 13th and final leg of the trip, with the owner in the right seat, I departed Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden for Nairobi right at sunrise, curious but not alarmed that the number-two cylinder was reading a slightly lower EGT and CHT than the other five jugs. Five hundred miles later, bouncing along above the Ogaden Desert near the Ethiopia/Kenya border, I felt something change, and a minute later, the engine gave out a short “BRRRT,” settled down for a few seconds and then switched to regular rough. Number two’s EGT started dropping off the gauge, and within 30 seconds, all six cylinders were running rough, and the EGT graphs were going nuts.
There was nothing below but rocky desert with no recognizable roads. I spotted what looked like a game trail and headed for it. It was rocky and rutted, but it was the only semi-flat piece of ground available. I put the landing gear down at the last possible minute, full-stalled the Lance onto the desert and waited for something to break.
A second later, it did. The right main gear hit a rut and departed the airplane. At almost the same time, the left gear snagged in a hole and held, slewing the Lance hard to port into a stand of Acacia trees. Next, the nosegear collapsed, and the engine broke off the firewall. As soon as the airplane came to rest, the owner and I were out the door and running as fast as we could. The Lance didn’t burn. No one was injured, but the airplane was totaled.
This one turned out to be a connecting rod that failed and eventually took the rest of the engine with it. Amazingly, the owner had the wrecked Lance disassembled and trucked to Djibouti, palletized and shipped back to California for rebuilding. I did the first return-to-service flight on the rebuilt Lance four months later. Everything went perfectly, but the owner still handed me the keys after landing and said, “Sell it for me.”
Most of the other failures weren’t in ferry airplanes and none have been in turbines. If there’s a message here, it may be that flying airplanes 20-25% over gross on a ferry system is a poor method of building time. After 211 international delivery flights, I think I finally got the message.