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Emergency off-field landing experience

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Oct 20, 2023
Reaction score
White Rock NM
Warning: Long post
Spoiler: The plane and passengers are all undamaged.

I’m a very low hour student and in my area of the country finding available CFIs and planes has become a very real problem. So to help mitigate the second problem, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and purchase a beautiful ‘64 PA-28-235, Fixed Prop model, N8702W. Beefy enough to take off from the high altitude runways on hot days with 3-4 pax and fulfill our mission of moderate cross-country trips after we get our licenses (wife plans to get her license after I get mine). All while being a nice simple plane to train with. N8702W was parked near Dallas and home base is Santa Fe.

Main story:
Through a friend, who is currently getting his CPL, we found a CFI that was willing to come with us and be PIC for the flight home. PIC is a very professional/serious younger guy working to get into the airlines. He’s happy to oblige and provide some instruction en-route so some of the trip home could count toward my hours. Works great!

We get to 02W and the shop was great, they performed a thorough pre-buy and fixed the relatively minor issues they identified. They also walked us through all the work they performed after the purchase. All logs and paperwork are in order and the plane is ready for pre-flight. We top off all tanks and conduct pre-flight with no issues (small amount of water in main tanks but nothing to write home about). 02W took a few extra turns of the motor to fire up but I imagine that’s to be expected after sitting for a few days since last start-up. PIC is in control throughout the takeoff/climb to get us clear of Class B Dallas airspace. Plane is running like a top and climbs like a hotdamn.

I took controls once we were clear of Dallas B and the cruise at 6500ft was a blast through Texas. We had calculated plenty of fuel was still in the plane and no one heard a call from Mother Nature so we decided to carry-on to KSAF without stopping in Hereford, TX (we identified Hereford as our bathroom and gas station on a ‘if needed’ basis during flight plan). Getting closer to the steppe of NM we brought the plane to 8500ft. Cruising right along at around 135 knots and having a good time playing with the systems on-board (generally getting the hang of the aged GPS and comms).

About 20 miles south-southwest of Santa Fe, at 1500 ft AGL, the engine slogged down hard. PIC immediately took controls and performed a smooth tank change, by the book. Power came back up to 1800RPM intermittently, but didn’t give us enough power to maintain. With only 1500 ft to play with, time was of the essence and instead of playing with switching tanks again the PIC made the decision to land and made the Mayday call to ABQ (we had flight following). Some of the last comms I recall is ABQ responding that we came in broken and all they heard was “Mayday”, then a Southwest Pilot retransmitted our call and ended it with “…and he sounds stressed". Incredibly there was a smooth gravel/dirt road nearly right below us that we needed to make a 180 to make it. As we got closer we saw that the road was flanked by barbed wire fencing and decided to put it down on the snowy field parallel to the road. The landing was as smooth as I’ve experienced, the field had a 3-4 inch layer of snow with soft ground/mud underneath. After 4 hrs of cruising I was overwhelmed by the quiet as the PIC had cutoff fuel and pulled throttle and mix back so we had a very still propeller well before landing. Reminded me of WWI veterans calling the sudden silence of the guns on Armistice Day the “Voice of God”.

Boy did we learn some lessons that day. We’re still processing and trying to pull it all together, but are treating this as an incredibly valuable learning experience. PIC has 1400 hrs and about 50 hrs in Cherokees, however not in the 4 tank models. He was watching the gauges but mostly just trusted his calculations of 15 gal/hr (switching main tanks every 30 min after using tips for a while after takeoff), yet all things indicate that we ran out of gas in both main tanks. Still had 20 gal in the tip tanks. Could’ve been a number of contributing factors (headwinds, running very ROP, struggling fuel pump, etc.). We are getting some very knowledgeable mechanics to help determine cause(s). There were a couple days there that my wife was on the fence about this whole ‘flying a plane’ thing, but once we determined (with some certainty) that it was fuel starvation and not something wrong with the plane, she’s come back around in a big way…phew.

Due to the remote location it was impossible to trailer the plane in one piece, so a recovery team went out a couple days later, popped the wings off, and brought it to KSAF. They also reported that the main tanks were nearly “bone-dry”. It’s currently sitting in the back of that big hangar in 3 pieces. Before they bolt the wings back on, we are getting the eddy current test done on the wing spars. Can anyone think of anything else we can do while the wings are off to take advantage of the situation? FAA is classifying it as an “Occurrence” since no one was injured and the plane is undamaged.

So yeah, could’ve gone south very easily and we are extremely lucky. Terrain in the area offered very little for landing and it looks like where we put down was probably the only spot within glide distance. One thing went very wrong that day, but many things went right. No one was hurt and the plane was entirely undamaged. A couple State Police, local Sheriff Deputy, and an ambulance responded and were in awe. The EMTs made a comment like,”I’ve never been called to a plane landing before, usually it’s on fire when we get there” and then congratulated us. Christ, what a day!

We’re planning to get an engine/fuel monitor installed to increase SA and set alarms. Not as a replacement for our own calculations, but it will help instill a little bit of our trust back into the plane. I think once we get it back into flying shape, I’ll focus my first many training hours on power off landings and emergency procedures!

This experience hammered in the gravity of our new pursuit into the sky. It might seem strange, but a part of us is thankful for it. What if we had done it a little later in the day and had to land at night? What if I had to perform the procedures and get us to the ground?… The list of what ifs grows every time I reflect on the experience and I think that will make us better pilots. And of course we are incredibly thankful to the PIC for getting everyone on the ground in one piece.

Be safe all, go ahead and land at your Hereford to top off and check fuel levels. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with the bird.


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