I Learned About Flying From That: My First Multiengine Lesson

How one pilot's first multiengine lesson went terribly wrong.

Learned Big

Learned Big

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Cost is definitely a factor when taking flight lessons. But have you ever given any thought to the value of really good flight training that will help keep you from becoming a statistic?

My main goal in writing this article is to further aviation safety by addressing the poor standards I used in selecting a multiengine instructor, and going forward with the lesson even though red flags were popping up both before and during the flight. I set aside my common sense and was swayed by very low-cost training by an instructor I had not flown with in years.

It was the late 1980s in Rio Linda, California, and this was my first multiengine lesson. I was as excited to get up into the air in this Piper Twin Comanche as I was when I had begun my flight training some 12 years earlier.

At the time of this flight, I was a dual-rated commercial pilot, but did not have an instrument ticket. My total flight hours added up to approximately 1,500. My MEI, “Fred,” had been flying since World War II.

Fred had a lot of knowledge and skills to pass along, and I enjoyed flying with him when I was working toward my commercial license, years earlier. Although I had not seen nor talked to Fred in a number of years, I called him to inquire about multiengine lessons. He said he “knew a guy who had an airplane he could use fairly cheap,” and his “bargain rate” was less than half of the price quotes I had received from three reputable flight schools I had contacted in the area, so I went for it.

I was taken aback when I met Fred at the airport. He seemed frail. My first indication that things might not go so well was when he asked me to physically pick him up onto the wing because he could not step up that high due to his arthritis.

After engine start, we did an abbreviated checklist for run-up and takeoff. Fred told me we had to get up in the air and didn’t need to run the entire checklist. He said this flight was just to get me familiar with the feel of the airplane by doing some air work.

I had flown the airplane for about 20 minutes when Fred suddenly, and unexpectedly, announced he was going to cut and feather the left engine and prop. He wanted me to see what it would be like to fly on one engine.

After about 15 minutes of single-engine maneuvers, Fred said “Start the engine.” I pulled out the checklist to restart the engine.

After three attempts, the propeller was still not turning. I told Fred that the engine wouldn’t start, as if he didn’t already know that.

His response shocked me. He asked me “Well, what’s wrong with it?” I replied, “How the hell should I know? You’re the instructor!”

My confidence in Fred started a descent faster than a helicopter doing an autorotation.

I asked Fred to hold the altitude while I worked things out via the emergency checklist. When he told me he couldn’t hold altitude, I quickly went over our options.

I told Fred, “We are going to have to take a field.”

Fred replied, “Which one?”

My angry reply was very curt. I quickly told him “How about right in front of us, and don’t hit the frigging wires!”

Numerous thoughts raced through my mind. One of those thoughts was a cliché told to me years earlier by “Joe,” a designated examiner and former instructor of mine. He said, “If you are flying a twin and you lose an engine, the other one will take you directly to the scene of the crash.”

Fred made a slight turn to the west in our descent. I was not paying too much attention, nor did I ask him why, because I was reading the emergency checklist and still trying to get the engine started.

But my mind was going over things that were not on the checklist. I was wondering what the NTSB and FAA accident reports were going to state. I was also trying to visualize the final resting place and condition of the airplane. Would the wheels be resting on the ground or pointing up into the wild blue? Would there be injuries? Would there be a fire because of all the fuel we had on board? I also knew I was going to have to help Fred out.

I looked up and realized that Fred was setting us up on a straight-in final for Runway 34 at Willows-Glenn County Airport (KWLW).

The site picture gave me the impression that there was a 50/50 chance we were going to make it.

Just before we crossed the concrete, I looked down and noticed that neither one of us had lowered the landing gear, which also reminded me that neither one of us had used a pre-landing checklist.

I yelled, “The gear’s not down!”

His reply, “Well, put it down!”

I lowered the gear and waited for the green light to come on before we touched down, but it didn’t happen.

Within seconds after touchdown, the green light came on, as the airplane was quickly on a diagonal heading for the left edge of the runway.

Without a word to Fred, I took the controls and did all I could to keep the airplane from going off the left side of the runway. The airplane stayed on the pavement, and I slowly taxied to a parking spot and shut down the airplane.

It was our good fortune that a mechanic, who just happened to be doing an annual, agreed to look at our airplane. The mechanic asked that one of us get into the airplane and attempt to start the errant engine. Fred told me to do it. I complied, wondering why my MEI was refusing to get in and attempt a start.

After the engine turned over a few times, refusing to start, the mechanic told us to go get a cup of coffee while he tried to figure out what was wrong with the engine. Fred and I grabbed some coffee at the airport cafe and waited for the mechanic to return. Fred spent most of his time staring out the window, not saying much, and would not look at me.

Approximately an hour later, the mechanic came in and said the airplane was good to go. Fred paid him, and we walked to the airplane. Wanting no problems, I did the run-up twice, using the full checklist. Fred still did not say much, and showed no interest in flying the airplane back or giving any further flight instruction.

After takeoff, I climbed up to a low cruise altitude, leveled off, and discovered another problem. Using the fisheye mirror that was installed on the cabin side of the left cowling, I noticed the nose gear hanging down, even though the gear lever was up.

The gear circuit breaker was popped, and Fred wanted me to push it in. I told him I would push it in, but before I did, I wanted him to know I was not going to raise the gear. I was afraid if I raised the gear, it would not come down when it came time to land at the airport where the plane was based.

The remainder of the flight to the airport of departure was uneventful. After the airplane was parked and secured, Fred told me he would pay the owner for the use of the airplane, and I did not owe him anything for the instruction.

Needless to say, this was my first and last multiengine lesson with Fred, and the last time I would ever fly with him in any airplane.
Here is just a partial list of mistakes Fred and I made during this flight lesson:

• I did not study the POH prior to flight. I should have had a good idea of the airplane’s limitations, normal and emergency procedures, and performance before I ever stepped foot onto the wing.

• There was no preflight discussion of what we were going to be doing in the air; i.e., a lesson plan with goal(s), how to accomplish the goal(s), and measurable standards of performance to determine if the goal(s) was/were reached or not.

• Fred did not offer, and I should have asked for, at least two hours of ground instruction covering items aforementioned above.

• Our roles switched when I told Fred the engine would not start and he asked me what was wrong with it. He was no longer acting as PIC, and even though I wasn’t rated in the airplane, I was forced to take over the job.

A month or so later, I landed in a helicopter at the airport where the Twin Comanche was based. In casual conversation with an FBO employee, I asked if he knew the owner of the Twin Comanche. He did, and told me that as far as the owner was concerned, scheduled maintenance was an option, not a requirement, and “pencil maintenance” was no stranger to that airplane.

Since my lesson with Fred, I have obtained my fixed-wing multiengine land rating from one of the three flight schools I originally contacted. The lessons cost a lot more, but it was money well spent. I had a good instructor and a well-maintained airplane.

Without exception, the one multiengine lesson with Fred had more of an impact on me, and I learned more from it, than several other lessons combined. You can avoid experiencing a similar lesson by properly researching your instructor and the airplane you’re training in before taking to the skies.