I Learned About Flying From That: Fat, Dumb and Happy

A regular flight takes a turn for the worse.

ILAFFT Mooney Dirt Landing

ILAFFT Mooney Dirt Landing

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

There I was: fat, dumb and happy. My friend Tim and I had taken my 1977 Mooney 201 from Camden, South Carolina, to Myrtle Beach to get the oxygen cylinder filled. We filed IFR on the outbound leg at 7,000 feet msl and had to fly the ILS at Myrtle Beach to get through some thin, low clouds. We were probably legal for a visual approach, but we flew the ILS for practice anyway (it’s still free!).

On the return trip, the ceiling and visibility were unlimited, so we flew back VFR with flight following. Tim is a U.S. Air Force Sikorsky HH-60G pilot, flight instructor and evaluator. He only recently “saw the light” and got his fixed-wing license, so I let him fly home for practice.

About five minutes after we leveled off at 4,500 feet msl, the engine made one loud shudder, and the engine analyzer indicated three dead cylinders. I took control of the aircraft, established my lift-over-drag max airspeed of 91 knots indicated and pressed the “nearest” button on the GX50 GPS. The closest airport was Hemingway-Stuckey, with 3,000 feet of runway at 12 miles, and Florence Regional, with 8,000 feet at 13 miles. It was just a 60-degree heading change to Florence, so we turned direct.

We had been monitoring Shaw Air Force Base approach control, so I immediately declared an emergency with them and stated my intentions. Tim squawked 7700 without even being asked. Shaw switched us to Florence approach, and the litany was repeated. During this process, I switched on the boost pump, put the throttle and prop to the wall, and verified that the engine was not responding. The prop was windmilling at 1,700 rpm, and we had a 600 fpm sink rate.

As I surveyed the local terrain, I asked Tim to switch to the other fuel tank. Still no luck. At about 2,000 feet agl, we were more than 7 miles away from the airport, and it was obvious that we could not glide that far. I asked the controller if there were any closer airports, and she replied “negative.”

The local area at this point consisted of the recently plowed field almost under us and a forest of tall southern pine trees between the field and the airport. I informed the controller that we would not be able to make the airport and would be landing in the field below us. I asked her to mark our position on radar and alert the local sheriff.

At this time, another pilot came over the radio and said, “Why don’t you try to land on a road?” I have never been a fan of landing on country roads with an engine-out emergency — there are too many problems with cars, trucks, power lines, ditches, etc. The field was definitely the best option.

At 1,500 feet agl, I started a left, 270-degree turn to set up for my desired landing pattern into the prevailing wind. I set half flaps and 70 knots indicated airspeed. Tim had only flown high-wing aircraft and asked if the door should be opened. I said no and told him that I would also be leaving the Mooney’s stubby little landing gear up. At about 200 feet agl, I asked Tim to set full flaps and put the engine in idle cutoff.

As the aircraft entered ground effect, I started to flare and held off until about 48 knots indicated. The aircraft touched down gently and slid about 60 yards. Just prior to stopping, the boarding step caught the dirt, and the airplane turned 90 degrees to the right and came to a gentle stop. “Let’s get out of here in case of a fire,” Tim said. So we did.

After we exited the aircraft, it was apparent that the only damage was a broken boarding step and a bent prop. After a couple of minutes, I got back in the airplane, turned the master switch back on and called ATC to tell them that we were OK. The same pilot who suggested that we land on a road relayed this message.

About three minutes later, the local sheriff arrived. The rest of the day was spent talking to the FAA, insurance companies and a local news reporter. The reporter was disappointed that the crash site didn’t look like a “plane crash” and didn’t really want to do the story. The cameraman did not even remove the lens cap, and we did not make the nightly news. I did have to call my lovely wife to ask her for a ride home and tell her that I got a little dirt on the bottom of her airplane.

This incident was caused when the single drive shaft/ignition points that make both of the magnetos work failed catastrophically. The engine was only windmilling and was not going to restart no matter what we did. The next day, the recovery company jacked up the airplane, put the gear down, put on a new “D” magneto and temporary prop. They flew it to their shop for repairs.

We were lucky to make it out of the incident unscathed and took away these lessons:

  • 1. Make your emergency landing decisions on the ground at 0 airspeed prior to the flight.
  • 2. When an emergency happens, maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation and land as the situation dictates.
  • 3. Fly your plan, and don't try to make the impossible happen.
  • 4. Use all available resources, but disregard extraneous inputs.
  • 5. Let the insurance company worry about the dirt on the prop.
  • 6. When you land off airport, enter "X000" in your logbook for the landing site. I learned this from Tim because helo pilots do this all the time.
  • 7. Read rule No. 2 again!

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