I Learned About Flying From That: A Worst-Case Scenario

** To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go to

(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.

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.

“Good idea,” I replied, not knowing at the time that Salt Lake Center was assuming this would be my final transmission (a detail I learned from the FAA the next morning). I started figuring exactly where I would touch down, lowering the gear again because the ground looked relatively flat. The good news: The ground looked quite flat. The bad news: It was a layer of thin ice on Lake Utah, covered by a dusting of snow that made it blend in with the surrounding terrain.

At 250 feet above the surface, less than 30 seconds from an unpowered touchdown, the right engine growled back to life. Yeah, baby! As I stomped on the right rudder and trimmed out the excess yaw, I set my sights on the runway threshold, keeping the airspeed above 100 knots. “In the immortal words of Alan Parsons,” I announced to my passenger over the intercom, “the game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card.”

“Does this mean we’re going to be OK?” Julie asked, sounding slightly bored with the whole thing. I was astounded at how calm she was.

As we crossed the numbers at about 100 feet, the right engine died again. I dove for the runway to gather a little more speed and flared at the last minute.

Surprisingly, we made a smooth landing, rolling to a very quiet stop on the juncture of the taxiway and the runway. The airport was deserted. I noticed that my hands were shaking a bit, and I had an urgent need to pee. I keyed the mike. “Salt Lake Center, One Charlie X-ray is on the ground in Provo, midfield on the edge of the runway. Zero power. Unable to taxi clear. Suggest you close the runway for now.”

It was several seconds before the controller responded, and when he did, I could hear the relief in his voice and a faint whooping in the background. “One Charlie X-ray, confirm you are on the runway at Provo?” I confirmed that I was, and he told me that the airport manager was on his way to give us a ride and arrange for our airplane to be towed to a parking spot clear of the runway. “Good job, One Charlie X-ray,” he said, signing off.

The next day the FAA had a representative from the Salt Lake FSDO waiting for us at Million Air in Provo, and we commenced our investigation into what happened. He took fuel samples and lots of notes, then praised my flying skills, then cited me for not having my pilot license with me in the airplane (it was in my desk at work).

A month later, I flew over to fetch the airplane, along with my mechanic, John Wells of Arapahoe Aero, who’d flown over two days earlier to fix the problem. It turned out to be a malfunction in the aneroid in the fuel metering mechanism of the left fuel pump, coupled with an overly rich mixture setting on the right engine that might have been compensated for if I’d leaned the engine rather than firewalling the mixture as I’d been trained. The right engine had come back to life as a result of greater oxygen content in the air as we descended.

The lesson: Retarding the throttle on a twin Cessna with the mixture at full rich can flood and kill an engine. Try to recover by leaning, even if returning the throttle to “full” doesn’t do the job. Do this before trying the “high” position on the fuel pump unless you see a fluctuation of the fuel pressure. Only if this fails should you secure the engine. The operator’s manual provides no real detail on this issue, mentioning only that the pilot can lean “as necessary” for smooth operation. This procedure wouldn’t have helped with the first engine failure but it would certainly have brought the second engine back much sooner.

The other lesson: Train in a simulator every year and be ready for this kind of problem. If you aren’t ready when it happens, you die. I owe the fact that I could deal with this situation to my annual pilgrimage to Flight Safety International. Without those hours in the simulator, I’d have been overwhelmed by the situation. A few months later we re-enacted the situation at the Wichita facility to experiment with other options I could have tried. As the saying goes, “Experience is what you get as a result of not having any.”

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