I was at the airport when a man inquired about flying lessons. He asked all the usual questions and then pointed to his wife and two boys. “Can you teach my wife how to fly also? You know, in case I have a heart attack or something while flying.” I quickly think, Uhmm, two students instead of one. Twice the flying, double the income. “Yes, we can do that.”
“OK, I would like her to go first.” I thought that was a little odd, as he seemed to be the enthusiastic one of the two, but Whatever, I thought, as I led her out to “Two Three Zero,” a Cessna 150 I spent a lot of time flying at my first job.
I introduced her to the airplane by showing her the things we inspect before flying. I explained how we test the fuel for water and contaminants, check the oil level, and inspect the airplane’s general condition. When we were at the engine, she looked at the cowling and saw the scars left over from an old sheet metal repair. “What is this from?” she asked. Being an honest flight instructor, I told her the truth.
“About five years ago a student pilot on his very first solo had the left front cylinder separate from the engine case. The airplane lost power, but he was able to turn downwind to make a safe landing.”
“How often do you have engine problems in these little airplanes?” For a beginning pilot, I thought it was a rather astute question.
“Ma’am,” I began – in making one of the biggest mistakes of my life, “I have been flying for nine years and I have 2300 total hours and I have never had an engine problem.” Never, ever, make such a dogmatic statement. Once it flies out of your mouth, it is going to happen.
Ten minutes later, we were leveling off at 1700 feet over Tampa Bay. As I reduced power to cruise, there was a very loud and sudden BANG from up front. The vibrations were terrible and I immediately turned back to the airport. The engine was only giving me about 1700 to 1800 rpm and it was a hot day. I maintained altitude as the airplane slowed and did what I could in the cockpit to restore power. I looked at my new student who was really enjoying her flight. She was, in a word, oblivious.
When the airspeed settled at five knots above stall, I could no longer afford to let the airspeed decrease. While maintaining my margin of five knots, the airplane settled into a very slow drift-down from altitude. As fast as I could, I did the math in my head to determine if we had enough altitude to make the field.
It wasn’t looking good. I would have to tell my new student – on her very first lesson – that in all likelihood, we were not going to make it back to the airport. Luckily, cow pastures surrounded us and when we reached 1000 feet, I made the decision for a safe landing in a pasture over trying to stretch it to the airport. Now all I had to do was brief my student on the emergency landing.
“Uh, you’re not gonna believe this but,” I began and then explained the situation. Her eyes tripled in size as she looked back at me. “Hey! You don’t see me getting excited about this do you?” Little did she know my heart rate quadrupled about a millisecond after the BANG.
We were about three miles from the airport when I turned Two Three Zero into the wind on a northwesterly heading to line up with a pasture. We continued the descent with power and then something wonderful happened. The power available curve increased in the more dense air near the surface of the earth and touched the bottom of the power required curve. All it once, we were maintaining altitude at 300 feet above the ground. Since the terrain between the airport and our position consisted of pastures, I turned back toward the airport. We finished the flight with an uneventful landing on the same runway we had departed.
My two students continued to fly with me until I moved on to Part 135 charter work. I lost track of them and never found out if they finished their flight training through certification.
One thing’s for certain: I will never forget the two of them and the event of my first engine failure.
© 2010 J. Clark