February 15th was just like most days for me in terms of flying and flight preparations. I made the final arrangements for my business visit with a customer and called the airport FBO (KJSO, Cherokee County, TX) to have the 1989 Piper Malibu Mirage taken from the hangar and fueled for the trip. This one was easy…a quick out and back to Piggott, AR. A small farming community in extreme northeast Arkansas, Piggott (7M7) has no instrument approach and a very short, narrow runway. Even though I’ve landed there dozens of times, it is always a good piloting challenge. Yet, this day, I would not get to enjoy the challenge of Piggott; but before the day was through, I was going to get to experience another short/narrow runway airport with no instrument approach…a challenge that was to test the limit of my piloting ability.
The overcast layer was between 2,000 – 3,000 feet over most of Northeast Texas and Arkansas, and I was climbing through the clouds to the great tailwinds forecast to be in the flight levels. Through 10,000 MSL, the scene opened up to a clear blue sky above and a field of brilliant bright white below. The sunglasses came out and I settled down for a nice, smooth ride with a great tailwind…what more could I hope for!
With nothing to look at below other than the bleached cotton under-cast, I began searching for things to do…made sure the power settings were exact, turned up the heater, looked up the weather near my destination…when all of the sudden, vibrations shook the airplane to such a degree that my first thought was whether or not I had lost part of the propeller. I have heard rumors of airplanes losing part of a propeller and the vibrations becoming so severe that an entire engine could be shaken from the airplane, causing an out-of-CG situation which could render the airplane uncontrollable. While this horrible image passed through my mind, the entire left windshield (and most of the right) turned completely black as oil splashed from the front of the airplane. Now, I still had vibrations, but I could not see in front to determine what was happening. Yet, with oil on the windshield, there was no doubt the engine was either dead or quickly dying. I slowed down to make sure the propeller was not windmilling and moved the fuel switch to “OFF”. As the airplane slowed, the vibrations stopped completely and the noise dropped significantly, with only the chiming of the “gear warning” (I had pulled the throttle back) joining an unusual rushing wind noise from the front. I’ve flown in gliders before, and could tell that this was not the normal slight wind noise heard from a streamlined glider…something unusual had happened up front.
I am not exactly sure what I said to ATC at this point, but, even though I could rightly have done so, I did not declare “May Day!” Yet, whatever I said, they knew I was now engine-out and had a black windshield. They cleared me to a lower altitude (which I thought funny since I had no choice in the matter) and told me the Arkadelphia Airport was 20 miles away to the east. I beat them to the punch by using the “nearest airport” feature on my GPS and turned the airplane to 5M8, Gurdon, AR, only 13 miles away on a 128 degree course. There may be some pilot’s out there who could do the mental gymnastics in such a busy situation to determine whether or not they could make a “better” airport (such as Arkadelphia) or not, but to me, at this point in time, the closest airport, whatever it was, was going to work just fine. I was not going to shoot an approach for I was now a glider with a black windshield and I never wavered from the decision to follow the GPS and try for Gurdon. I asked ATC to call the airport and get the emergency vehicles rolling and also asked for the CTAF for the airport. The fire trucks never came, but a friendly airline pilot sharing the frequency helped immensely by giving the correct CTAF frequency and words of encouragement. It was somehow comforting to me to know that other pilots were aware, involved, and indeed cared about me and my predicament.
My thought process centered on getting over Gurdon and then spiraling down until the airport became visible, hoping for enough altitude to maneuver for a landing. I arrived over the airport at about the same time I entered back into IMC, somewhere around 10,000 MSL. During this whole ordeal, it seems that I dealt with each phase of the emergency one problem at a time. While it is true that my hands were full throughout the descent, you would think I would have figured out that with no engine, I also had no vacuum pump and, therefore, no reliable vacuum instruments (Attitude Indicator and Directional Gyro), but it was not until I entered the clouds over Gurdon that this realization became understood. I used airspeed and the turn coordinator as primary pitch and bank instruments (respectively) and held the airplane in as steady a spiral as possible, trying to stay near Gurdon. I hoped the IMC conditions would end in time for me to find the runway, and I called ATC to get their best guess as to where the bottom would be. Also, I wanted to know their best guess of winds for runway selection. They gave me both and I dropped the gear for I was now more interested in getting down quickly that I was extending my glide distance.
A most welcome sight came at about 3,000 MSL when I came into the clear and saw the airport through my left windshield directly below me. I was in about a 40 degree bank and had about a 1,500 FPM rate of descent when I got very serious about making sure the final portions of this flight ended with no more bent metal. Looking through the left window, I entered a downwind and short base, trying to fly exactly as I would normally, except being sure to stay closer to the airport and making my aiming point 1/3rd of the way down the runway. I can now report that there is an overwhelming urge to “not be short” when truly landing engine-out. I kept the airplane close knowing I could add flaps or slip on final to get down if needed. The thought of landing short and in the trees at 85KIAS was far less appealing than rolling off the end at a slower speed. All of this was rolling through my mind at this point.
The dark oily windscreen was my next challenge. Despite what you see in the movies, if your windshield is covered in oil, you will not see through it and the air will not “blow it away”! The oil limited all forward visibility from the left seat. I figured I could just slip the airplane creating forward visibility through the left side window and then kick in rudder a few feet over the runway and land blind right over the runway, but at about 300 feet AGL, this became a most uncomfortable thought. I had a small area of windshield on the extreme right side that was free of oil, so I grabbed and tossed the papers, approach plates, wireless phone, and whatever else was in the right seat to the back of the airplane and jumped over as quickly as possible. The seat back was in the full upright position (which is the totally wrong position for my 6’3” frame), and my headset was knocked off as I ungracefully threw myself right. I fumbled with the seat for a few seconds and then gave up for the runway (thankfully) was drawing near. With my head pressed against the right window, I could only see the right edge of the runway, but this was far better than what was visible from the left seat. I touched down firmly and braked hard. As the airplane slowed, I felt better and better and better realizing I was going to be OK and the airplane was probably not going to suffer any more damage.
I ended up on the left side of the runway with about 300’ of runway remaining. I’d like to say I was ecstatic, and though I was thankful to have landed successfully, I still did not know what happened to cause the engine to fail and had a “guilty” feeling that I was part of something that just did not go right. I slowly gathered myself together and realized I was shaking as I climbed into the back of the airplane to get to the exit.
After exiting the airplane and walking to the front, the first unusual sight was the #2 cylinder poking through the left cowling and the cowling metal that was frayed out in the slipstream as a result…that was the unusual wind noise I heard when the engine stopped.
I stood outside the airplane for about 5 minutes wondering what to do next and then called my boss to tell him the news (I learned in the military that “bad news does not get better with time”). After about 10 minutes, a nice gentleman arrived to investigate why anyone would want to stand next to an oily airplane on a runway in sub-freezing temperatures. This man turned out to be a God-send as he (a fellow pilot and Gurdon Airport advocate) took me under his wing and ensured I was taken care of. I used his digital camera to take the initial pictures of the aftermath and his wife even drove me to Arkadelphia where a rental car could be attained. Their willingness to help a fellow aviator with “broken wings” will always be remembered as “above and beyond” the call of duty. I hope one day I can return the favor. The long drive home gave me plenty of time to gather my thoughts and count my blessings. So many questions and so few answers…
The next day, I flew with some friends of mine, including my mechanic, to Gurdon to open the cowling and try to get some answers to some of those questions. What we saw under the hood took our breath away.
Much of the forward portion of the engine was broken into chunks that were scattered all over the engine compartment and the #2 cylinder was thrown completely from its normal position. The #2 cylinder piston rod broke at the piston. Although the rod was then free from the piston, it was still firmly attached to the crankshaft which unmercifully thrashed the whole forward portion of the engine as the crankshaft turned at 2400 RPM.
I have never seen anything like it. Fuel lines were severed, oil was scattered everywhere, and shrapnel damaged or destroyed just about every component in the forward engine area. How a fire did not develop can only be attributed to the grace of God. It was a scene to behold.
Although I wish it had not occurred (especially as I anticipate the repair bills), looking back on this emergency, I have grown as a pilot, instructor, and person through the experience. I now have a greater understanding and appreciation for the interrelatedness of the systems on an airplane and will be able to better relate to others how one little problem can cause a snow-ball effect that could get out of hand in seconds. Mostly though, I have an appreciation for the many instructors, both military and civilian, who trained me well. Flying with inoperable vacuum instruments, gliding to and then spiraling down over an airport, aiming 1/3rd down the runway, using others to help you solve problems in difficult situations, practicing flying from the right seat…every one of these situations were practiced many times over the years with instructors who cared enough to train well and realistically. This emergency had a good outcome because of many who were not in the cockpit and I hope (as I too am a CFI) to be one who can help others survive. Hopefully, others will be able to learn from my experiences.