The C35 Bonanza, N5946C, was cruising at 6,500 feet when there was a sudden loud bang from the engine compartment, followed by a smell of oil. The IO-470 sputtered and lost power.
The 3,300-hour commercial pilot, 59, who was taking his single passenger on an air-taxi flight from central Long Island to a destination in New Jersey, initially, and appropriately, reacted by pulling up to slow the airplane and gain a couple hundred feet of altitude.
The engine failure took place at approximately 0738:40 local time, a few seconds after the JFK Departure controller who had cleared 46C into the New York Class B handed the flight off to La Guardia Departure. At that moment, the Bonanza’s heading was 282 degrees, and it was making a 142-knot groundspeed against a headwind of 20 to 25 knots.
About 80 seconds after the engine failure, at 0739:58, the controller gave 46C a right turn to 360. At that point, the Bonanza had lost 1,000 feet in altitude and its groundspeed had slowed to 62 knots, circumstances that, oddly, did not elicit comment from the controller. The pilot only now revealed his situation: “OK, 46C, I’m having a little bit of a problem. It’s, ah, I may have to turn to Farmingdale. Well, give me a second, if I may …”
The controller twice urged the pilot to “keep me in the loop [and] let me know what’s going on [and] any assistance you need.” At 0740:31, the pilot, without declaring an emergency, said, “I’m gonna have to take it down at the closest spot.”
The controller immediately reeled off a list of possibilities: La Guardia, Kennedy, Westchester, Republic Airport at Farmingdale (FRG).
“OK,” the pilot replied, “Farmingdale is the closest airport, 9 miles. OK, yeah, I’m not going to make Farmingdale.” As he said this, the pilot began a left turn toward FRG, then about 140 degrees from his position. He was now at 3,500 feet.
His estimate that he could not make FRG was correct. According to the C35 POH, the airplane would glide 1.7 nm per 1,000 feet of altitude — a glide ratio of 10-to-1 — at its best glide speed of 105 kias and with the windmilling prop at the minimum rpm setting. We do not know what, if anything, the pilot did about the prop pitch, but his speed, which varied between 80 and 90 knots over the ground even after he had turned southeastward and put the wind a little behind him, was too low for optimal performance. At any rate, he could no longer expect to glide more than 6 nm.
Then came a lifeline. “There is a strip about your 10 o’clock and 5 miles,” the controller said. “Bethpage Airport.”
The pilot grasped at it. “Give me this airport,” he said. “I’m not seeing it.”
“There’s a strip right about at your 12 o’clock and 3 miles. … The strip is a closed airport, ah, I just know there is a runway there, about 11 o’clock and about a mile and a half now.”
The Bonanza was at 1,400 feet msl. The pilot searched for the runway, but saw only buildings.
The controller continued to vector the pilot while offering alternatives: a parkway right below him, FRG’s big runway still 5 miles distant.
“Yeah, no way on that. Let’s see, uh, tell me this strip again if you would. I’m sorry.”
“There’s a strip about 1 o’clock and less than a mile,” the controller repeated. “It’s a closed airport; I have no information about it, unfortunately.”
The pilot never found the Bethpage runway. He tried to land on railroad tracks, but luck was not with him. His right wing struck a barrier at the only grade crossing in the vicinity, and the airplane flipped over and burst into flames. The pilot died from impact trauma and burns; the passenger survived with serious injuries.
The reason the pilot failed to find the Bethpage airport — formerly the home of the Grumman Aircraft Corp. — was that it did not exist, having been replaced several years earlier by an industrial park. The reason the controller vectored him to it was that the nonexistent Bethpage runway was still depicted on his radar screen.
It emerged from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of this accident that the FAA lacked a formal procedure for ensuring closed airports were purged from the radar video maps used by controllers. Nonetheless, someone had removed the Bethpage runway from the radar video maps of JFK and Islip controllers, whose coverage overlapped La Guardia’s. The zombie airport remained only on La Guardia controllers’ screens.
The NTSB identified other contributing factors. Of course, there was the engine failure; the crankshaft had broken, there was a hole in the oil sump and the engine was incapable of producing power. In addition, there was the cocktail of drugs, including amphetamine at more than 12 times therapeutic levels, that post-mortem toxicology found in the pilot’s blood and urine. The combination of the drugs he was taking or abusing and the medical conditions for which they had been prescribed “likely significantly impaired his psychomotor functioning and decision-making.”
What primarily caused the accident, the NTSB found, was not so much a decision as the lack of one.
When the engine failed, the Bonanza was about 7 nm from the FRG runway and could have glided more than 10 nm, assuming the POH numbers are correct and the pilot had executed the glide in accordance with POH instructions. Naturally, there was bound to be some delay while the pilot assessed the situation and, according to the surviving passenger, tried to restart the engine. This took time. Nevertheless, two minutes and 15 seconds elapsed between the engine failure and the pilot’s finally starting a turn toward FRG.
The pilot had been operating an on-demand charter service out of Westhampton, where the flight originated, for a dozen years, and it’s certain he was quite familiar with FRG and knew it was a few miles behind him and to the left when the engine quit. Yet all the while he was losing precious altitude, he did not take the precaution of turning toward it. Nor did he explain his 1,000 fpm descent to the controller, nor report that he had engine trouble, nor ask — though he almost certainly already knew the answer — for a vector to the closest runway.
Few pilots ever experience a total engine failure. When one does occur, it is nearly always the pilot’s first. Impeccable reactions cannot be expected. Nevertheless, like the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, sudden silence “concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The pilot’s first action — pulling up to convert speed to altitude — was correct. His second should have been to turn toward FRG, but he did not do so until he had gone so far, and lost so much altitude, that FRG was no longer within his reach.
The pilot might still have salvaged the situation by landing on any of several golf courses, or on the parkway that the controller pointed out to him, if only he had not been led to believe — because of a grotesque and cruel bureaucratic oversight — that a runway lay just ahead.
Pilots reading this account will be relieved to know that the FAA now has a formal procedure for purging nonexistent airports from controllers’ databases. You have to wonder, though: Why didn’t they think of that before?