Engine Failures Are Louder at Night

I have written about engine failures in the past (Engine Failures, “Go ahead, punk, make my day!”, Running on Empty, and Dinner Conversations About Fear). The one thing I have not addressed is engine failure at night, which is, without question, the worst thing that can happen to a pilot flying a single engine in the dark.

There are always going to be risks associated with flying. When you add more variables to the equation, such as flying in poor weather, or flying at night, or flying in poor weather at night, well, you get the picture. To read some more about that, see my blog from August 31, 2010, Night Flight.

The worst possible situation pilots can find themselves in would be an engine failure at night. Night flight is very peaceful and serene until the engine quits; then it is a horrible nightmare – if you let it become such.

As with all aspects of flying, you have ways of keeping the amount of risk low, but only if you follow a few common sense rules. For one, when experienced pilots fly at night, they use routes that pass over airports as checkpoints and they fly at higher cruise altitudes. Typical minimum altitudes are above 4000 agl, this way, if it does quit, there might be an airport within gliding distance. There’s no question that should you fly directly on a course taking you away from airports, this increases the likelihood of an off-airport landing in the dark.

You may even find yourself in that predicament even if you are doing everything right to minimize your risk.

Have you read the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook? Many inexperienced pilots have not read this book, yet they fly. One thing the book says about engine failures at night is that the pilot should land in a dark area, near lights (not in the lights).

Flying at night means, if it is a night without a moon or high overcast, you are not going to have the ability to pick a landing area. You will not know if you are going to land on a pasture, in the woods, in the middle of a lake, or on an unlit subdivision (yes, there really are such things).

The Airplane Flying Handbook says to land the airplane in a dark area for some very good reasons. More than likely, there won’t be buildings there (they tend to have security lights).

It also says, “to maintain orientation” with the wind. This is especially important because if you make the mistake of landing the airplane downwind instead of into the wind, it is going to hurt. As an example, the Cessna 172 has a stall speed of 33 knots to 44 knots, depending on model. Landing into a headwind of 12 knots will decrease the groundspeed at landing to somewhere between 21 knots and 32 knots (depending on model). For the pilot who makes the mistake of landing with the wind, however, touchdown happens at 45 to 56 knots (again, depending on model).

At a touchdown speed below 30 knots, a pilot could fly a plane into the side of a brick wall and all of the occupants should be able to walk away. Hitting something at 56 knots, however, decreases the probability of survival significantly.

The key is keeping the aircraft under control throughout the ordeal. As with all engine failures, it is important to set the airspeed to best glide and trim the airplane. Maintain that speed until you get close to the ground. A couple of hundred feet above the ground, “tickle” the nose up very carefully to get the airspeed down to about three knots above stall. Be careful not to stall the wing.

To be successful, contact the ground as slow as possible and under control. If you stall it and fall out of the sky, you are not under control. Impact velocity will be high, decreasing the chance of survival.

Inexperienced pilots have voiced the opinion that a night emergency landing should take place on a road.

Poppycock! (It’s a real word, look it up in the dictionary!)

Booby-traps line the sides of roads, which can kill an inexperienced pilot, one who has not read the Airplane Flying Handbook. Additionally, there is a theory about young pilots today flying with the belief that the only place they can land an airplane is on a hard surface – because that is the only place they have operated airplanes. Therefore, when the engine quits, they find themselves working very hard to find something that looks like a runway. Unfortunately, roads look very similar to runways and they have enticed many a novice pilot to a grim ending.

Granted, some pilots have executed successful landings on a road. But again, there are traps lining and crossing the road that can kill.

I really wish more common sense was used in this area of flying. Airplanes, particularly light airplanes in the general aviation fleet, are very well suited for operations off grass, to include runways, and pastures.

When it comes to my night operations, I always know which direction the wind is blowing from and I know I will choose to put the airplane into a dark area, near the lights, under control.

I encourage further discussion on this topic, just click here and scroll to the remarks section at the bottom of the page.


©2012 J. Clark

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8 Responses to Engine Failures Are Louder at Night

  1. Jeanne says:

    Always love your perspective on flying Joe. I hear your voice as well as my flight instructor’s in my head when I am flying on different issues especially on the safest way to do things. Thanks for the time you put into your posts. Jeanne

    • Joe Clark says:

      Thanks, Jeanne. Your “project” doesn’t really look like a … well … project. It is a beautiful house! There is only one problem with it – it is north of Jacksonville, FL… I still just cannot deal with the cold! Don’t know how you and the majority of the rest of the 313,000,000 of us live up in the cold country. I guess I am just a wimp …

  2. Harrison says:

    Hello, fellow wimp. It’s all good info, Joe. I’ve always thought you could probably mush into the tree tops and still walk away. Let’s hope we never have to test the theory.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Yes, it is true! you can mush into the treetops and walk away from it. There is an awful story from here in the Daytona area of a brand new private pilot who was out drinking after passing his checkride at an FBO at the Ormond airport. This was about 25 years ago, before 9/11, an era when students and instructors returning late from a cross country would merely note the times on the sheet, clip the keys to the clip board, and toss both up under the backseat. Well, he and two new friends that he met at the bar decided to go flying and long story short, ended up in the top of a big oak. No one hurt. Guess he couldn’t quite figure out how much fuel remained after the other student’s long cross-country …

  3. Josh J says:

    Professor Clark,

    I heard you were switching to one of these to negate the problem of engine failures.
    …gear up!

    • Joe Clark says:


      Is this cool, or what? Only works in hilly country, with winds. Hummh… All hilly country is north of Jacksonville, making flying between the end of August and the beginning of May impractical due to freezing conditions … No, I don’t believe this will negate the problem of engine failure… Very cool youtube, however.

  4. Caleb McKee says:

    I think one of the problems students have coming from flight schools is that unless they actually go somewhere outside of school and fly, they never get to experience landing on anything but a paved runway. I’d love to go out and land on a grass strip but its not something that I’ve ever had the chance to do as all of my flying has been at the flight school.

    Any idea why we don’t practice landing on non-paved runways? It seems like it would be worth it to get experience doing it before you might have to do it in the event of an engine failure.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Hi Caleb,

      I edited your comment as it is not limited to one flight school, but flight schools all over the nation.

      The reason we don’t work off grass runways anymore is due to a couple of concerns. First, we are modeling after the military and airlines and they gave up flying off grass runways a long time ago. Many are surprised in fact, to find the B-17s, B-24s, P-47s, -51s, and -38s routinely worked off grass runways in England during World War II.

      The other reason are the insurance companies. They put the mom and pop airports out of business a very long time ago because they refuse to issue policies to “privately owned airports” that operate off grass runways. As a consequence, FBOs, flight schools, and universities can no longer offer flight training that includes true “soft field” operations.

      More to come on this…

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