Why it Happens
In a study that analyzed general aviation (GA) accidents from 2001-2010, the FAA determined system component failure – powerplant (SCF-PP) to be the third highest accident category behind loss of control and controlled flight into terrain. More recent data indicates a continuation of this trend, which got the attention of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) and spurred creation of a SCF-PP working group in 2014. Their task was to perform a deep dive examination of accidents related to powerplant failure and develop educational outreach and mitigation strategies. Their study helped identify some of the more prevalent problems. Not surprisingly, human foibles — not malicious mechanical gremlins — caused most problems.
Much of this research mirrored the findings of Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), Master Instructor, and Wisconsin FAASTeam Lead Rep Woody Minar, who looked at 700 engine failure related accidents from 2001-2017. In his study, Minar narrowed the reasons for engine failure to six key areas: fuel exhaustion, maintenance/mechanical issues, unknown, carburetor ice, water/debris in fuel, and simulated engine failures. Pilot error still contributed to 49% of the engine failures.
How to Prevent It
Notable preflight oversights that lead to engine failure include loose fuel caps, unsumped fuel tanks, and clogged fuel vents. All these mistakes could be easily identified before even starting the engine. The takeaway: never underestimate the importance of a good preflight inspection and briefing.
During flight, stay engaged with the health and status of your systems, regularly check your oil pressure and temperature, and listen for abnormal engine sounds. Passengers can help with these monitoring tasks.
Staying engaged also means monitoring fuel. Fuel management (or mismanagement, to be more precise) is a predominant factor in engine failures. While fuel lines and filters can become clogged and cause a shutdown, fuel starvation is primarily an operator error. Failure to verify fuel levels in the tank(s), underestimating head winds, and forgetting to inspect fuel with your eyes and nose can all lead to you receiving an unexpected glider lesson. The same tips apply to inflight fuel management: keep tabs on fuel burn rate and the position of the fuel selector.
Of course, there are still days when your magnificent flying machine misbehaves. Although uncommon, parts and components do fail. Hidden problems could lurk in cylinders, pistons, valves, crankshaft, or fuel lines, for example. Be on the lookout for warning signs like irregular oil pressure and temperature fluctuations, excessive RPM drops during a magneto check, or an excessive cylinder head temperature. If something seems odd, have a mechanic take a look.
Stay on top of your aircraft’s maintenance needs and required inspections. That includes annuals, applicable airworthiness directives, and time-in-service intervals for life-limited parts or systems. It’s also important to check engine performance after maintenance has been completed. Mechanics can make mistakes; loose oil and fuel fittings and fuel selector valves installed backwards are just a few of the maintenance-related errors that have appeared in accident reports. In addition to verifying all fasteners are present and accounted for, do a thorough run-up and a few circuits in the pattern after any work has been performed.
If it Happens to You …
Now let’s take a look at what to do if your engine does decide to fly west.
First and foremost, stay calm. Panic will only waste two of your most precious commodities at this moment — time and altitude. Fly the airplane and rely on your training and procedures. Start with memory items and if time permits, follow the engine failure checklist which should always be in reach, and may lead to a successful restart. Your priorities include establishing best glide speed, finding a place to land, and declaring an emergency.
According to Larry Bothe, DPE, Master Instructor and FAASTeam Rep in the Indianapolis area, one of the biggest mistakes pilots make is not checking fuel early enough in an emergency. “After an engine failure, switch tanks and flip on your boost pumps” says Bothe. “Many times that will get your engine purring again. You can chastise yourself later for being dumb.” Be sure to check your Pilot’s Operating Handbook for any specific instructions on managing fuel after engine failure.
It’s as Easy as ABC (and DEFG)
One helpful checklist you can use with an engine emergency is ABCDEFG.
- Airspeed: establish the correct speed and maintain it.
- Best field or landing option: pick it and head for it.
- Cockpit Checks: do your flow checks; you might be a switch flick away from a non-emergency. If time permits, use the emergency checklist.
- Declare Emergency: use current frequency or 121.5 and squawk 7700.
- Exit Preparation: adjust your seats/seatbelts, brief your passengers, and prep for landing.
- Fire Prevention: fuel off and turn off the 3 Ms: mags, mixture, and master.
- Ground Plan: have an egress plan and make use of first aid equipment as needed. (Please see this issue’s Checklist department for details and other emergency checklists.)
It’s probably fair to say that the most demanding part of any engine-out checklist is selecting a safe landing site. It requires you to rapidly assess glide distance, landing roll, micrometeorological conditions, landing hazards, and minimizing risk of injury to persons or property on the ground, not to mention yourself. Bothe urges pilots to be keenly aware of wind direction. “You need to land into the wind,” he says, warning that pilots sometimes get lulled into choosing the closest part of a field. “[Landing upwind] can make a huge difference in the amount of energy you need to dissipate and reduce the chance of severe injuries.” If you haven’t been monitoring the wind during flight, you can pick up clues from smoke, tree limbs, or wind lines on water.
Bothe is also a strong advocate for getting ATC help during an emergency. “Outside people who see the big picture on radar and know exactly where you are is a really big help,” says Bothe. He recalls during one engine failure ATC provided directions to the nearest airport before he even had a chance to check GPS. If an off-airport landing is necessary, ATC can also help first responders get to your location more quickly.
To Succeed, Prepare to Fail
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
— Benjamin Franklin
Mr. Franklin’s adage on an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is equally fitting here. Losing an engine in flight can be a scary and downright gut-wrenching experience. As we’ve pointed out, though, vigilance and preparation will substantially improve your chances for a successful outcome. On every flight, use every opportunity to hone emergency skills. Plan what you would do if you lost an engine at regular intervals of a flight, from takeoff to landing. Rehearse flow checks and memory items so they become instinctive and methodical. In summary, don’t rely on luck; count on training and preparation to keep your motor running.