A Pilot Recalls the Most Basic Lesson of Airmanship

April 14, 2002, was a great day to fly from La Porte Municipal Airport to Galveston, Texas, for some practice instrument approaches. Barry Ross/BarryRossArt.com

I’ve been diagnosed with a very unhealthy amount of cancer and am starting to take stock of my life. Looking back at a 35-year love affair with flying small airplanes, I realize just how important flying was to me personally. I just reviewed my logbook for the first time in many years and found one particular entry that I will remember forever.

April 14, 2002, was a great day to fly from La Porte Municipal Airport to Galveston, Texas, for some practice instrument approaches. The airplane, my 1971 Cherokee 180, N1835T, was starting to forget how to do them, so it was time to remind her.

There was a thick cloud layer at 400 feet, common in the area southeast of Houston, so I filed IFR, did the preflight, got my clearance, did my run-up and got ready to depart Runway 23. Throttle forward, pitch up, and the flight was under way. At about 300 feet, I was just getting ready to both enter the cloud layer and contact Houston Approach when the engine stopped. Just like that. One second it was running, the next it wasn’t. No warnings, no vibrations, no unusual sounds. Only a sudden silence.

There was a moment of stunned disbelief. Thankfully, it was only a moment because, pitched up and climbing at 70 knots with a stall speed of about 60 with no flaps, there wasn’t a great deal of time to figure things out. My first glance at the instrument panel showed the airspeed right at 60 and falling. I took that as a sign that dumping the nose was probably the first thing to do, so I did. I established a glide speed of approximately 70 knots as I tried to figure out what to do next. What ran through my head was the counsel of my instructor of many years ago to land, with so little altitude to work with, straight ahead. Turning would likely lead to an unsurvivable stall, and I know I’ve read articles on how difficult it is to pull off that turn. The only problem was that continuing straight ahead would have put me into a large brick building dead ahead, with parking lots and power lines on each side, which would certainly have done enormous damage to my new paint job.

My decision was to dump the nose even further to prevent a stall, and begin a turn back to the airport property, which I had barely left. I figured that even if I could get back to the 6-inch grass, the airplane wouldn’t move very far, and that it would be survivable as long as I stalled it out just above the ground.

Then the engine scared me even more by sputtering back to life. At this point, perhaps 10 seconds had expired; I hadn’t had time to switch tanks or mags, or done anything other than control airspeed and direction. As I leveled out of the turn, it quit again, but now I had a new plan. With the small addition of power, I figured I could probably get back to the crosswind runway, the 1,000-foot-longer Runway 12. And if not, there was a perfectly usable taxiway. And I would have settled for relatively level grass.

I declared an emergency over the CTAF, quickly stated my intentions to return to 12, and was gratified to see two or three other planes scooting to get off taxiways and clear the active to get out of my way.

Because the last time I dumped the nose the engine came back, and being sure of landing somewhere on the airport property, I gambled some altitude on trying that again. Sure enough, it roared back to life at pretty much full power. I used that power to build some airspeed and trade it for some altitude, and then slowed when I was sure I had the runway within gliding distance, with flaps. Power off (intentionally this time) and with flaps full, I put her down about halfway down the runway, with the engine quitting again just as I started to flare.

Life was good. The paint was not scratched.

At this point, I’m sure many readers have figured out that I had water-contaminated gas. Even though I checked all the sumps, there must have been some water hiding somewhere that got into the carburetor based on my pitch attitude. There’s lots of rain in Houston in the spring, and I had developed a leak in at least one of my gas caps.

The next week my airplane was in a hangar, with new fuel caps.

I consider myself to be lucky. I could have stayed in a stupor when the engine quit for another couple of seconds, and I would have died. I was lucky to have a primary instructor, Jim Soete, who, um, loudly reminded me to, no matter what was happening, pay attention to “airspeed, Don, airspeed!” His voice was in my head that day.

I’m keenly aware that life is not a survivable event. But unexpected flying issues are.


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