(January 2012) A cold mist drifted over Salt Lake City International Airport. The night air was bitter cold. I checked my watch as the fuel truck pulled away: 9:45. If my passenger, Julie Richards, who practices law with me, and I took off now, we would land in Denver by midnight. It was the end of a long day after a hard week defending a class action jury trial in federal court in San Jose, California. After having flown the first leg home and having dropped my client in Salt Lake City, I was tired. Two thick cloud layers blanketed the Rockies between Salt Lake City and Denver, but there were no storms and our twin-engine Cessna 421 Golden Eagle would easily penetrate this mild weather. A pressurized cabin and deicing equipment made our bird able to fly through‚ and above‚ such weather. We’d had no trouble shedding the light ice we’d accumulated on the instrument approach into Salt Lake. After a careful preflight, we took off a little after 10 p.m., rapidly reaching clear, star-filled skies at 23,000 feet. We were cleared direct to Centennial Airport and turned to the east. I reached for the throttles to reduce power for the cruise home. With a strong jet-stream tailwind, our GPS computer predicted we’d be home in a little over an hour. Our ground speed was nearly 300 mph.
As I pulled the throttles back, the left engine died. I firewalled the throttles, mixture and props. Checked the alternator and magneto switches: all on. Checked the fuel selector valves: both on normal. Our fuel gauges were still reading just under full on both wing tanks. I’d inspected the fuel levels with my eyes before takeoff, so I trusted that we still had plenty of gas. I pushed the left fuel pump over the guard into the “high” position and hoped for the engine to restart. Nothing. Fuel flow on the left side was near zero. Confirming that it was the left engine that had failed, I feathered the left prop. The right engine continued running smoothly. I trimmed out the adverse yaw, called Salt Lake Center to declare an emergency and got a vector to the nearest airport with an instrument approach: Provo, Utah, 60 miles behind us.
As we settled down to our single-engine service ceiling of 14,500 feet (strictly on instruments as we were now in the clouds), crawling on one engine at 120 knots into what was now a strong headwind, the flight back to Provo in the dark soup seemed to take an eternity. The inability to maintain altitude in the mountains at night is a reality that sucks away your courage, even if you expect to level off above 14,000 feet.
I remembered being interviewed as a guest television commentator after two twin-engine airplanes crashed near my law office a few years ago. I explained to the viewers that twin-engine airplanes flying on only one engine suffer so much loss of performance that the pilot often tries to keep the bird in the air with too much back pressure on the stick. This works for a little while but carries a deadly price: The pilot bleeds off airspeed until the airplane loses rudder control, and the unbalanced torque of an off-center engine flips the airplane into a death spin. I was determined to keep my eye on the airspeed and, losing altitude or not, keep it above 110 knots.