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I Enjoy the Quiet It's Just That the Engine Isn't Running

By Kevin Szalapski, EAA 792226; illustrations by Aaron Hoffmann

Kevin Szalapski
Kevin ready for takeoff

It was spring 2009. The sun was out, the snow was gone, and I was looking forward to the summer flying season that was ahead. I was in my car driving to the hangar in Osceola, Wisconsin, to go for an evening flight in my XT-582 AirBorne trike. The weather on May 8 was very nice for flying, blue sky and a west wind at 5 mph and dropping. It looked like a great evening to fly until dark, or until the end of evening civil twilight, as the FAA calls it.

I pulled up to the hangar and poured 5 gallons of premium alcohol-free auto gas into the tank. My plan was to fly for two hours or more, and now with 12 gallons in the tank there’s enough fuel for three hours. The Skydat LCD display in the cockpit had a fuel flow meter that kept track of fuel burned on each flight. So, the weather was perfect, I had all the fuel I needed, and now I just had to do a complete preflight before I’d be ready to leave the ground. As I went through my written preflight, I heard a few planes take off, but the airport wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be. I always felt good going with a written preflight list because things don’t get missed as each item is checked off. The aircraft was ready to fly, no problems found.

The engine was a Rotax 582 Blue Head with oil injection. My AirBorne has a Cruze wing, which is a light, easy wing, and flies with a cruise speed of 54 mph and a landing speed of 38 mph. The 582 engine had been running perfectly since I bought the trike and now had 230 hours. Helmet on, radio on, strobes on, and the engine was running as I taxied to the active runway for takeoff. This is always a good time to listen to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency and assess how many planes are in the pattern and what traffic you need to work around to safely depart.

As I taxied to the takeoff point that evening, I heard one Eurofox in the pattern for landing on runway two-eight. I looked to the east and observed the aircraft about to make its turn to final. While waiting for the Eurofox to land, I went through my before-takeoff checklist and saw that my engine temp had reached 140 degrees and was ready for takeoff. This was about as warm as it gets on the ground and would be closer to 170 degrees at level flight. The Eurofox had landed now, and the runway was all mine. I announced my departure and went to full throttle for takeoff on runway two-eight.

I have 320 hours flying trikes and consider myself one step above a beginner. My humble opinion is that at 1,000 hours you begin to be an accomplished, knowledgeable, and competent pilot. I remember reading the book titled Artful Flying by Michael Maya Charles; he stated to the effect that if you think you know it all, your mind is closed, and nothing penetrates a closed mind. You need to always have an open mind to be able to learn everything you need to know when flying.

St. Croix River
High over the St. Croix River

At around 43 mph, I pushed forward on the control bar and soon I was aloft. Following the runway, I climbed up to 1,000 feet above ground level (agl) and made a left turn going south along the St. Croix River which borders Minnesota and Wisconsin. I checked the engine temperatures and rpm as I leveled off. Everything appeared normal. Below me on my right was the river, and on the left was a mixture of woods and farm fields. It was only five minutes into the flight and five miles south of the airport when everything changed. I felt a loss of power and watched as my rpm started decreasing. I gave it more power, and the decline seemed to hesitate but then dropped to zero as the engine completely stopped running. I was still flying, but now I could only fly down, not up.

Ka-lunk

Looking back on my training, I was always told you need to practice engine-out situations, and do them safely. In practice, I would bring the engine to an idle at 1,000 feet agl and look around, pick a landing area and touchdown spot, and see if I’d come up short or long. You get to know your glide ratio by practicing this, but you need to be careful not to practice an engine out from high altitudes because of shock cooling the engine when you get to full throttle after a long descent.

You need to be able to accurately predict where the plane will be, one minute from now. As you get closer to the ground, if there are any obstacles you might not clear as you approach your desired touchdown point, then consider that landing as a failure and apply full throttle right away. Trees, fences, and wires are all things from which you need to keep a distance. I’ve done many simulated engine-out practices during my 320 hours in the air.

So here I was at 930 feet agl and no power. I noticed how quiet it was but didn’t have any time to enjoy the silence. I was not going into the cold river, so I looked forward and behind and chose the field that was in front and to the left of me – not very far away. I looked for power lines and a road on approach and didn’t see any. That was it; I had made my choice fast. You can’t waste altitude while debating landing options. You need to make the best choice available and stick with it.

I set up what would be a base leg, then final to the field. I knew I had to burn off some altitude to get down at the beginning of the field. I didn’t panic, a little scared of course, but no panic – things seemed to be lining up. I remembered saying to myself, “Kevin, you have done many engine-out practices. Relax and think of this as one more of those.” I turned final and still looked a little high, so I pulled in on the bar to increase my rate of descent. I would be picking up some speed, but that’s okay because it was a long field with some run-out room. At this point, I was relaxed enough that a restart attempt came to mind. I reached out and hit the starter – I had nothing to lose. The engine turned over very slowly, so I knew it wasn’t something simple like a blocked fuel filter or line.

The spring of 2009 in Wisconsin wasn’t a very wet one, and the field looked like hard flat dirt. If it was soft mud, the front tire could dig in and flip the trike. Things were starting to look up. No one would be collecting on my life insurance that day. There was a slight wind from the east, and I was coming in, cutting a diagonal through the rectangular field in a southeast direction. I started my flare at about 1 foot and slowly bled off all the energy the wing had left and touched down softer than I usually did at the airport. I didn’t use the brakes and managed to roll up to the farmer’s barn, which was right by the road.

I unbuckled the seat belt, got out, and I had a great feeling of accomplishment and relief. I also knew that I had the perfect field right in front of me, and the choices could have been a lot worse. I had less than two minutes time, from engine out to touchdown. The farmer, who was in another field, saw me land and drove toward me on his four-wheeler; he looked mad. He asked me, “What the hell are you doing?”

My reply was “I am sorry for trespassing on your land, but my engine quit and your field was the best choice.” His tone changed completely, and he looked at me and said, “You could have been killed. You should be happy to be alive.” I told him I was indeed very happy to be alive and unhurt.

The farmer and a neighbor, who witnessed the landing and came over to see the strange kite thing that had dropped from the sky, couldn’t help me out enough. I got a ride back to the hangar and picked up my car and a trailer that’s set up to transport the trike for trips. I was able to drive the trailer right into the field from the road. These strangers were now helping me remove the wing from the trike, take it apart and bag it, and put the wing and the trike on the trailer as the sun set. The task was completed just as it turned dark.

It was great to have these people helping me out so much that evening. Strong winds were predicted for the next day, and I didn’t want the wing or the trike outside in those winds.

What happened to the engine?
The engine had seized in flight. I brought the trike and engine to an authorized Rotax repair station, and it was determined that the needle bearings on one of the crank arms disintegrated in flight. The probable reason given to me was incorrect storage over the previous years, during the winter months the trike spent in Wisconsin while not being flown. If the engine wasn’t going to be run often, the engine should have been fogged, and the intake and exhaust should have been sealed up tight. This would have prevented moisture from getting into the engine and causing rust, pitting, and corrosion on the bearings. It’s a two-cycle motor, so the oil injection system was the only lubrication the parts were getting when the engine was running.

What can happen in an engine-out situation?

  1. Worst case is you could die, and the aircraft would probably never fly again.
  2. You get seriously injured, and the aircraft is damaged badly as well.
  3. You’re unhurt, but there are repairs to be made.
  4. You’re unhurt, the craft has received no damage, but your engine is toast.
  5. Everything is fine. It was just a plugged fuel filter or other minor problem. Best-case scenario.

Conclusion
I fit under number 4, so after $5,600 for a new engine and install, I was back in the air on June 6, 2009, with most of the summer ahead to enjoy the good days at 1,000 feet. I hope this story will inspire other pilots so they, too, can survive an engine out.

Remember, you never know when it will quit. What happens to be below you is one part of the formula, and part two is your ability to choose the best spot available and touch down close to your desired landing point. A lot of engine outs happen just after takeoff. The engine is running at maximum rpm, and that stress will show itself if something is wrong in the motor. By doing flight testing, I’ve found if I’m halfway down the runway at 250 feet and it quits, I can put it in a steep descent and get it on the ground using the second half of the runway.

If I’m more than three-quarters of the way over the runway and at more than 800 feet agl, I can turn back and land. If you know these limits of your aircraft, you already have a plan of action depending on altitude, before the problem arises. Pilots need to keep in mind that turning back to the runway isn’t just a 180-degree turn; you have to fly a question mark pattern (?) to realign yourself with the runway. It’s better to fly straight ahead into hazardous terrain than stall out at 100 feet trying to reach the runway. Safely practicing engine outs is something everyone should do so no one encounters the same situation as the pilot in this illustration.

Choices
“If man were meant to fly, he would have wings. Should I pull the chute? I wish I had driven there instead.”

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