As the minutes crept by and our altitude bled away, I had plenty of time to envision how this flight could end badly. Did the evening forecast call for possible areas of widely scattered aluminum and body parts? I thought of my passenger, whose life was in my hands. Talking to Salt Lake Center on the radio while being vectored to Provo, I tried to sound cool and collected, but within a few minutes, my mouth was dry and my heart was pounding. Were we getting full power out of the right engine? Would we eventually be able to hold altitude? I kept punching the boots every few minutes to keep the wings clear. Giving into fear would spell the end for us at this point, so I forced myself to relax, focusing on controlling my breathing.
I started planning for the instrument approach into Provo. ATC cleared us to descend, but I was reluctant — altitude is life in a situation like this. I wanted to hold onto it until we were closer to the airport, and now the airplane was holding onto 14,000 feet without difficulty. I asked Julie to bring up the approach diagram on my iPad (an amazingly handy tool) while I loaded the approach into both the Garmin 530 and the MX-20 moving map display. I split the screen on the MX-20 to show both the IFR map and terrain near our altitude. Quite a blessing, that terrain feature. At least I could visualize where the mountains were as we continued to descend.
Salt Lake Center vectored us through the localizer approach course well above the glideslope, and we broke out beneath the clouds at 9,000 feet or so. Just as we passed through the localizer, I could see the runway over my left shoulder. What a beautiful sight! Now I could continue to descend with comfort. I circled gently to the north, keeping up the airspeed in the descending turn to avoid any chance of a stall, avoiding the temptation to turn sharply and dive for the runway. As we came out of the turn on course, I lined up for a visual approach and extended the landing gear, with 10 degrees of flaps and landing lights. Still above the glideslope, I reduced power on the right engine, which had been running full-bore for most of the flight, still with mixture full rich as I’d been drilled at FlightSafety.
That’s when the right engine died.
Thank you for your contribution, Professor Murphy; we’ve heard all we need from you, if you please. ...
Same drill: throttle, prop, mixture, alternators, magnetos, fuel selector. Fuel pump to high. No good. We were losing altitude fast. I could see we would come down well short of the runway. Raising the landing gear and retracting the flaps didn’t do enough to extend our glide; no matter what we did we would come down a couple of miles short of the runway. The Golden Eagle has the glide characteristics of a bowling ball, or so it seemed.
I agonized for a few seconds over the decision: Should I feather the right engine to extend my glide? Secure it to prevent a fire? A tough call, but I decided not to feather the right engine on the chance that the windmilling propeller might bring her back to life. Of all the decisions I’ve made in my life, some were right and some were wrong. It turned out that this one saved our lives.
“Salt Lake Center, One Charlie X-ray. Number two just died, and we’re dead stick.”
“Roger, One Charlie X-ray. We have people on the way.”
The resignation in the controller’s voice made me queasy.