Fly the airplane!

Will “Fly the aircraft” become a lost skill?  With more and more technology being crammed into general aviation aircraft and pilots are taught to push a button for this or that, what is going to happen to our basic stick and rudder skills?  I remember my first lesson, my instructor an old Vietnam chopper pilot, I learned from the very beginning to fly the aircraft all the way down to the ground.  On my very first lesson we were flying over the Eastern Shore of Maryland and he reached up and shut the engine off!  I had about 20 minutes of experience under my belt and I remember him asking me “Now what are you going to do?” I looked down, saw a large field and pointed to it and said that we can land there.  He looked at me and replied “Ok, land the plane in the field”.  “Oh boy” (I may have said something else) I said to myself.  He said nothing more to me until on the ground – Yes we landed in the field I picked out.  I simply turned towards the field and lined the Piper Tomahawk up on a long final.  I remember thinking at any time he is going to take over or he is going to start the engine.  But he said and did nothing.  He helped me a little in the landing flair.  And I remember that at some point while in the air that the propeller had stopped turning (my experience now says that I must have gotten it a little on the slow side for the prop to stop).  After on the ground he gave me a little speech about being prepared for emergencies and how I had to be ready to deal with the emergency and to fly the plane.  A little shook up and up until that point I had been so focused on landing the plane I finally looked around and saw a few more planes – by luck I happened to pick a large grass airstrip.  In the air I had no idea that I had picked out an airport to land at, I was convinced we were landing in a farmer’s field.  But I learned that emergencies were real and that I had to deal with them.  There were NO buttons to push – I knew nothing about proper airspeed (best glide), I just did what felt right. And it worked out.

Speaking of emergencies below is part of a letter (from my library) along with the pilot’s recount of the events that lead up to him writing the letter.

March 20, 1946

Parts Department

Globe Aircraft Co.


           I would like to order some parts for my Swift.  Yesterday while flying I lost my engine.  I did manage to land safely but the airplane will need some work before it can be flown again.  Please send me everything forward of the firewall.

Leonard Lockwood York who wrote the above letter, actually did rebuild his Swift from the firewall forward and flew it again (he flew it for another 30 plus years).  He is one of the few pilots who have literally lost an engine in flight and managed to bring the airplane down safely.  Engine “tear-aways” as they are called are rare occurrences in single engine aircraft.  Usually not more than one or two a year are reported.  But when they do happen the pilot, unless he is prepared for the situation, may be unable to cope with the sudden shift in the center of gravity, and could experience a complete loss of control.  The nose may pitch up abruptly, or the aircraft may stall and go into a non-recoverable spin.

A number of my students and fellow pilots have asked about the best procedure for dealing with this kind of emergency (this happened long before chutes were being installed on aircraft and the pilot dealt with the emergency and FLEW the aircraft).  As each make of aircraft has its own flight characteristics, it is not possible to establish a standard procedure.  But in general the key factor appears to be airspeed.  In an engineless aircraft airspeed is controlled by the elevator, and if the speed is not kept up high enough the elevator may become useless.  Elevator response is more or less directly proportional to airspeed below Mach 1.  Mr. York’s own account of his experience, written shortly after it happened, may be instructive.  A Naval Aviator in World War II, he was an experienced test pilot for Continental Engine Company in 1946.  His aircraft was a Globe Swift, a low-wing retractable tail-dragger with an 85-HP Continental fuel-injected four cylinder engine.  On the day of the accident he had taken off from Muskegon, Michigan Municipal Airport at 8:52 a.m. on a flight to Cleveland.

Here is the pilot’s recount of what happened in his own words:

The engine and propeller and airplane were operating normally until I was just northwest of Amherst, Ohio (about 20 miles short of the Cleveland Airport).  I was flying at 1500 feet indicated, which was about 1,000 above the ground.  The altimeter was set at 30.09 as per the Toledo altimeter setting.  I had just started a turn to the left when suddenly a severe vibration began, and the engine cowling started to move up and down rapidly with a noisy thud, thud, thud.  Then the thud changed tone and became less of a thud and more of a jingle.

I recognized from the first sign of vibration that I had a propeller failure and I immediately pulled the throttle shut.  The engine slowed some – but then the throttle pulled right out of the instrument panel.

I cut the ignition switch but that did not affect the engine operation at all.  The magneto ground wires had already been torn out.  By this time all the push-pull controls were pumping in and out of the instrument panel at a velocity that seemed to match the engine rpm.


The vibration became extremely severe.  Both ashtrays were emptied and ashes were flying over the entire inside of the airplane. All loose articles in my pockets were shaken out and maps and everything else that was not fastened down went sailing around the cockpit.  Outside I could see cowling in various sized pieces go flying past the windows; luckily none of them struck the airplane.  In spite of the vibration the flight characteristics of the airplane were pretty normal – until I was approximately 600 feet above the ground….

And then the engine fell off!  The airplane nose came up violently and the left wing went down in what apparently was a secondary stall, resulting in a quarter snap roll to the left.  I immediately shoved in full left rudder and full forward wheel.  Gradually the nose came down and the airplane went into a very steep glide.  Straight ahead – to the north – I could see trees to the left and a field to the right.  The area around me consisted of fairly level farmland – my good luck.  The field ahead, as it turned out, was plain black dirt; the crop that would be harvested there later in the year had not yet made it appearance.  It would eventually- including some engine parts.

I remember thinking that I had never heard of anyone successfully landing a single engine airplane minus the engine.  (Later I was reminded that stunt pilot Paul Mantz, and also Jesse Jones, a test pilot, had done it, and I thought we might form an exclusive club – we would have our meetings in a phone booth!).

I also remember thinking about diving the airplane into the trees.  In dense timber the airframe might be broken up over a sufficiently long distance of travel to absorb the shock and maybe take the accident at least out of the fatal category.  I was reluctant to deliberately break up an aircraft, especially one I was fond of, but it seemed the best bet to survival.

The airspeed was indicating about 110 mph.  With the wheel full forward, the airplane remained in a steep glide, but it was under control.  I found I could ease the wheel back just about an inch and still maintain flight at 110.  I was trying to hang onto that 110 mph, because at that speed full down flipper (elevator) was sufficient to overcome the imbalance of trim caused by the missing weight of the engine, propeller, etc.  Reducing speed below that would have resulted in a climb (followed by a loss of airspeed and stall) and a spin of uncontrollable characteristics.

I noticed the red light on the panel, indicating that the wheels were still up.  I was surprised that they had not been shaken down during the severe vibration.  I decided to try to put the airplane into the field gear-up rather than into the trees.  I would just fly it into the ground at 110 mph, so it could decelerate without lift.  I would keep the nose pushed down all the way to avoid a stall – no flare, no round-out, just bore it in.

Keeping the wheel one inch back of full forward I got the airplane almost to the ground, but it refused to go down, no matter how hard I pushed forward on the wheel.  When the wing was about 18 inches from the ground the nose (or what was left of it) began to come up…very slowly.  I leaned forward and waited for the tail to hit.  When it did hit I leaned back and bridged into the seat belt which was snugly fastened as is my normal practice.

The airplane dug its nose into the ground at a fairly level attitude and at a speed of approximately 90 mph.  It slid along the ground for about 150 feet, the flat firewall scooping up mud and dirt as it went along, which helped the airplane to stop.  I didn’t get a scratch.

I climbed out of the airplane and looked at my watch.  It was 11:28:30.  From the position of the broken blade and the engine I was able to calculate later that the total time elapsed (between the first vibration and the time I stepped out of the cockpit) amounted to something less than 40 seconds.  Harry’s comment – It would probably take a pilot of the “electronic age” twice that long to figure out which button to push to fix the problem!

Some farmers came over and asked if I was all right.  They said I was on a Mr. Garek’s farm.  I wanted to find the engine, so five of us started walking, in line, back along the flight path.  In a field about seven-tenths of a mile from where the airplane stopped we found the engine, deeply buried in the ground – so deep that after it was pulled out one of the farmers jumped down inside to examine the hole and he was unable to get out unassisted, and had to be helped up.  One blade of the propeller was missing.

We could not locate the missing blade, but it was found the next day, by a high-tension line walker for the Ohio Public Service Company, a man named Richards.  He got so interested in his find that he carried it all the way back to his home, where it became a kind of showpiece for everyone in the community to see and wonder about.  As soon as I heard about it I contacted Richards and got the propeller.  He described the place where he had found the blade as… four towers west of where the engine fell.  Since the towers are spaced 500 feet apart, that means the blade was found 2,000 feet away from the engine.  The blade was found sticking vertically in the ground, tip down, imbedded down to the metal ferrule.

I was especially interested in that propeller because it was a new design and although laboratory tests all said it was okay, I had voiced some suspicions about its compatibility in the Swift.  It didn’t take long to find out I was right.  Half of the wooden blade had separated from the engine, after the head of the main screw in the blade butt failed – presumably from excess vibration.  After the blade flew off, three bolts in the engine mount had failed, and various tubes in the mount had sheared, allowing the engine to tear away.  We never did find most of the cowling.

But the airplane itself had little damage, other than a slight caving in of the belly from the landing.  There was no damage to the wings except that the airspeed mast on the left wing was broken along with some wing fittings.  The right wing apparently had brushed the ground at some point during the landing, but so lightly I had not noticed it, and the wingtip was undamaged.

Engine damage was just what you might expect from a 600 foot fall: fins were broken off and external parts were generally beaten up.  I removed what was left of the propeller from the crankshaft and in doing so noted that clay had been driven into the back face of the key-way on the prop hub until it molded the entire rear end of the propeller actuator hub.  This will give some idea of the impact involved in the drop of the engine.

I arranged for a truck to move the wings and engine to the barn of the farmer, Mr. Garek.  All of the people at the scene of the accident were very helpful and cooperative.

Mr. Wagner, the Civil Aeronautics Administration Inspector from Cleveland who came to the accident scene, concurred that the accident was due entirely to mechanical failure and was not in any way caused by lack of care, or lack of technique by the pilot.  He also complimented me on the flight job done.  I have thought a lot about it since, I can think of nothing more I could have done to retain the engine in the airplane; or to land the airplane with less damage.  I guess I was lucky at that. END OF MR. YORK’S WORDS.

Engine tearaways, as in the case of Mr. York’s Swift, are fortunately rare, and almost invariably the consequence of a broken propeller.  Sometimes it is simply not possible to shut down an engine, following a propeller failure, in time to prevent the severe vibrations from weakening or shearing the engine mount.  Preventing the cause is much easier than flying the engineless airplane, but good propeller maintenance remains one of the least understood and most neglected areas of pilot concern.

Mr. York’s experience is not meant to provide data guidelines for any other pilot who might be unlucky enough to face the same frightening task.  That 110 mph airspeed, for example, which proved to be just right for Mr. York’s Swift in that particular configuration might be all wrong for another aircraft.  Furthermore, you will not find that kind of information in a handbook or flight manual, because airplanes are not tested for such conditions.  If the occasion should arise, you will have to work it out for yourself.  York managed to do everything right because he was thoroughly familiar with his airplane and he had a solid understanding of aeronautical theory.

And also because he wasted no time (he had only about 40 seconds to impact) in giving way to panic or despair.  A legacy from his years as a Naval Aviator was the motto: Never give up! Keep flying – try to retain control of the airplane, no matter what.

Pretty good advice for any emergency!

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1 Comment to Fly the airplane!

  1. by Harry Kraemer

    On February 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Have we as pilots become too dependent on technology? Will someone write an app for the iPhone to assist us in emergencies or will we have a direct “hot line” to Geeks on Call to assist us during in-flight emergencies?

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