The dreaded dead stick landing

Everyone of us thinks about that day when the plane gets real quiet. The big fan up front has quit. And we start to sweat.  I pulled off a classic dead stick landing in a Grumman-American Tiger in late September 2005. Read about it and learn from it.
  -  Henry "Roscoe" Rosche

Aviation is filled with those cute little saying and statistics. You are safer in a small plane than your bathtub. Most plane land off airport due to fuel starvation than mechanical. Average mechanical failure is every 25 years. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. All of those are great except when they start to point to you.

If you have ever attended a FAA safety seminar they always will tell you that there is a chain of events that lead to the accident. If any one link had broken the accident would or could have been avoided. So let me start with what happened and then cover the things I should have noticed.

I was flying the airplane from Emmett, Idaho to Moraine, Ohio as part of my move back east. Weather was not a factor on this trip. It was severe clear the whole trip, blue skies, no clouds, and since I was heading east, tailwinds. Nice.

I left Emmett and departed for Thermopolis, WY for my first fuel stop. After climbing up to 11,500 MSL to cross the mountains in Idaho, I enjoyed the ride looking at some beautiful if rugged terrain. As I looked ahead on the sectional, I saw I would have to climb higher to get over the mountains in Wyoming. So I diverted to Rock Springs for the lower terrain. At 160 knots groundspeed, I was there in short order. Fueled, checked oil, and departed for Valentine, Nebraska. Two hours and some change later I was landing at Valentine and spent the night.

The next morning during preflight I noticed that I had used an extra half quart of oil. SO, I topped off to 6.5 quarts and departed for Iowa. Up at 9,500 it was cool, smooth and had a good push from the wind at 158 knots. I was actually making such good time that I extended my leg another 45 minutes until I was near my VFR reserves and landed at Muscatine, Iowa , the pearl button capital of the world according to the sign in the FBO. At this point I was 320 nm from my final destination so I took on 38 gallons for the 2 hours. I checked the oil and saw that I was a quart lower than expected. Some oil mist on the belly so I refilled to 6.5 quarts and figured I would have my mechanic check things when I got home.

Took off and was climbing to 9,500 when at 4,700 MSL the plane was not climbing as expected. Rpms were a bit low so I did a quick scan of the instruments. My oil temp was at redline and my oil pressure was in the yellow arc. So I stopped the climb and throttled back to 2200 to evaluate. Checked the GPS and was 12.7 from Galesburg so I headed in that direction. Now that my course was to closest airport I rechecked the gauges to find out what was happening. Oil pressure was continuing to fall and I went back to full rich to bring the CHTs down. I was making 123 knots in a shallow descent into Galesburg as I continued to watch the oil pressure fall out of the yellow arc toward zero. At this point I was 8 miles out. At 7 miles the pressure hit zero and it was right after that I started to hear tappet noise. Thanks to my first flight instructor I always try to keep a landing spot of some form in sight. At this point I realized I might not make Galesburg so I had two roads to pick from as well as lots of filled fields. The first road had trees and power lines, and the second was a bit farther but appeared to be gravel with no obstructions. So when the engine started to shake a few seconds later I went full forward on the throttle to make sure I made the second road. As Ron Levy, Safety Officer of the AYA, remarked, I sacrificed the engine to save the airframe. Right after that there was a loud clank, a big puff of white smoke out of the cowl and the vents and the prop stopped in just a few blades. Okay, at this point I did not waste time on the engine, it was gone.

With 1500 feet of altitude I was sure I would make the road so I started my pattern, did a right base and tried to drop the flaps. They were not coming down. Looked at the panel and noticed that the fuel was on off and the master off as well. Did not even remember doing that, so I turned the master back on and dropped the flaps all the way and called Galesburg and announced that I was making a deadstick landing on the east-west gravel road approximately 4 nm NNW of the airport and then turned off the master and turned final. My approach was a bit high but I slowed to 75, did a light slip to drop altitude and was thankful that the road was 1.0 miles long. I touched down and rolled to a stop only hitting one pothole. After I stopped I grabbed the extinguisher and ran to the engine compartment. Lots of black oil but no smoke, but there was a connecting rod through the upper case at the number 2 cylinder.

As I went back to stow the extinguisher a car was pulling up. On base I had flown over a farmer’s house and his wife remarked at how quiet my plane was and then he noticed that my prop was not moving so he jumped in the car to see if he could help. We introduced ourselves and I briefly told him what had happened and he asked if I needed anything. I then went to the plane and turned on the master to contact Galesburg to let them know I was okay if I could reach them. No answer but about then a Cessna came over from the airport rather low and started a circle above me. I tried to contact him on Unicom but he was too busy transmitting “Airplane down, there’s an airplane down, smoke everywhere.” That made me look around and the smoke was actually the dust from landing at 75 mph on a gravel road. So I called the Cessna and told him I was okay. He finally answered me but did not relay anything to the airport.

About 2 minutes later we began to hear the sirens. First there was a count sheriff. Then an ambulance. After that I lost track of who arrived when as the sheriff had questions and the ambulance wanted to examine me. My blood pressure was 150 over 100 and heart rate was 83. Breathing was normal. I had to sign a form refusing service. Seems they kept thinking I had hit my head and I just told them it was a normal landing except on a road and I had used runways in Alaska in worse shape. Then the second ambulance wanted to examine me and I suggested they just share the data and I would sign it.

By then the state police arrived and I near the county line so they decided that I could not block the road so we turned the plane around and proceeded to move it to the a gate area so it could be push pack off the road. There were about 20 people who looked like they were going to help so I asked for 3 volunteers to help. I instructed two to just hang on to the wingtip, and the big guy to help me on the prop. I did not want to land with no damage and then have a bunch of eager volunteers dent the wings and tail sections. So we moved it about 100 feet and push it off the road.

I then had a brief discussion with another sheriff about a blood and urine sample and told him that if he wanted those, get a court order and I would comply. He admitted it was voluntary and I asked him if when a car broke down on the interstate did they also query the driver. He said no and left. Then the state trooper asked to see my license and I gave him my driver’s license. He said he meant my pilot license, and I told him he could only ask for that if there was an intention of flight which was not a possibility at that time. He asked if I was sure, so I out on my FAA hat and turned back and said I was sure. He passed me the number of a local FAA guy to call.

Five minutes later I found myself alone with my plane between two soybean fields. I was offered a ride into town, or to the airport but I had plenty of food and drinks in the ice chest so I declined. Then I called Luann to let her know what had happened and then called Bill to come and get me and the plane.

So I took out my sectional and recorded the series of events as I remembered them and put down the lat/long from the GPS. Took out the ice chest and had a diet coke and sat down and called the FAA. Yeah I know but as Fran said I had not done anything wrong.

I told him the story from my notes and he then wanted me to call the Springfield FSDO which I did, sorry Ron! This guy put me on hold several times for long spells which ran most of my cell battery down.

I then called Ron Levy for advice and had a sandwich. After lunch Bill called back and gave me an ETA and told me to start taking the plane apart.

Dug out the toolbox and removed the wingtips, the aerlions but did not have a open 3/8 inch wrench for the flap attack brackets. So that done I took out the laptop and wrote some more notes and a list of tools I needed to add to the box. Then for giggles I took the lat/long and put it into Microsoft Streets and Trips and it pinpointed me on 255th Avenue in Galesburg.

Several folks drove by and were amazed to see a plane and asked if all was okay. They said they had never seen a crash and I asked where it was at! A UPS driver came by and verified the info from the mapping software so I called my mechanic and gave him where I was in lat/long as well as directions from I-74.

Gene Johnson, a local farmer, who saw the plane circle overhead came out to see what the fuss was about and chatted with me for a while. He asked if I needed anything and I told him about the 3/8 inch wrench. He brought me 2 and I removed the flaps. Then I needed a 9/16 socket to remove the tail and the shoulder bolts. Gene brought those and 2 beers and took my cell phone to charge for me. About an hour later when he got back I had it all ready for transport. I am proud of the fact that I removed the tail in the dark by myself. So I had lots of time to kill. I spent it inventorying the contents of the plane, used the control surface to see what kind of shelter I could build and finally about 10 pm decided to try and sleep in the canopy cover under the sheltered wing. That was not to be with the emergency workers coming by with spouses to see the “crash site”.

Finally at 1:30 am the trailer arrived and we defuled the wings and then unhooked the lines and loaded the plane on the trailer. We had to straddle a ditch so the tail could get low enough to allow us to pull it on the trailer. Then we strapped everything down, checked the area for tools and trash and started back. We arrived back in Moraine at 1:30 pm exactly 24 hours after the landing.

Now in retrospect I can tell you that I did have some hints. I noticed that climbing out of Rock springs that my oil pressure was in the green but not in the normal position and my oil temp was slightly elevated. I attributed it to a long leg and high air temps.

Leaving Valentine the next morning I had to use more fuel flow to keep CHT’s in line which I attributed to the higher temps. All these warning signs were missed which in the end left me very few options. But the plane is fine, I am fine and we will both fly another day. My sage advice, “Listen to your engine”. If I had stayed at an airport it would have been much easier to dismantle and ship.

I was fortunate that my training taught me to keep a spot in sight and that I did land in a great neighborhood. Gene loaned me critical tools but I am still amazed that with a Phillips screwdriver, a 3/8 inch socket and wrench and a 9/16 socket you can take your plane apart for transport. One of the volunteer fireman came back and bought me cigars to keep the bugs away after dark. The line boys at the airport and the CFI’s brought me water as I was tired of drinking pop.

Several of the local farmers left me their home numbers if I changed my mind and wanted a couch or bed to sleep in. Total time on the engine was right at TBO. We will tear the engine down in a few weeks and do a post mortem. Meanwhile I’ll strip and paint the control surfaces, and replace some plastic I got from Fletchair. See ya’ll in Fredericksburg this summer.