• PiperForum.com is a vibrant community of Piper owners and pilots. Our over 1,500+ active members use Piper Forum to swap technical knowledge, plan meetups and sell planes/parts. We host technical knowledge of general aviation topics and specific topics on J3-Cubs, Cherokees, Comanches, Pacers and more. In addition to an instant community of pilots for you, PiperForum.com is a library of technical topics, airplane builds, images, technical manuals, technical documents and more.

    Access to PiperForum.com is subscription based. Subscriptions are only $49.99/year or $6.99/month to gain access to this great community and unmatched library of Piper knowledge.

    Click Here to Become a Subscribing Member and Access PiperForum.com in Full!

Engine out, March 2021 at 4,500ft

This site may earn a commission from merchant affiliate links, including eBay, Amazon, and others.
Jan 9, 2014
Reaction score
I felt compelled to document what was probably the most horrifying 6 minutes of my life. My wife said it was the only way I was going to get past the incident and get back in the pilot's seat. This happened on March 8, 2021, and since then, I have flown probably 100 hours. So, putting the incident on paper does help. I'm sorry in advance that the post is so long.

It was a cool March morning. My wife and I had made this journey from our house on the South Carolina coast to our house in upstate South Carolina at least 150 times. We enjoy our little house on the coast, and we use it as a getaway, especially during tax season. Being a CPA, you need to take advantage of the time out of the office, especially during Jan - April. The trip back to the upstate is always the same – a little longer than the trip to the coast because of the headwinds, little to no traffic, familiar ATC voices along the route and about an hour and a half of listening to The Stones.

We own a well-equipped 1982 Piper Dakota with about 4,100 total hours and 2,100 since the engine was overhauled. She has dual transponders (ADS-B), dual Garmin G5s, a Garmin GNS 530W, a new Garmin GFC500 autopilot and digital engine and fuel gauges. Needless to say, she is a great IFR machine. I have owned her for over 10 years, I fly about 100 hours per year, and I have my private, my instrument ticket and a high-performance endorsement. I train at least 5 hours with a CFII every 90 days, and I consider myself a very conservative pilot. I never intentionally fly hard IFR, and my wife and I agreed on day one, that if we ever had to be anywhere at certain time, then we would not buy the plane. It’s not uncommon to wake up on the coast on a foggy Sunday morning and decide not to fly home until the next day.

We started home the day before and because of the severe turbulence, we quickly did a 180 and went back to the beach house. The next morning was beautiful. No clouds, no turbulence, just our normal headwind back to the upstate. I took off from KMYR at about 8:20a with flight following staying down at 4,500 ft because of the winds. I was given “on course” rather quickly so I engaged the autopilot, did my cruise checklist and settled back with a few tunes from The Stones.

Did I mention that I baby this bird? Everything on it except the engine and the prop are new. I change the oil every 25 hours and send the oil in for analysis every other oil change. Just two weeks before, my oil analysis came back completely clean, and a compression check showed every cylinder was at 74 psi or higher. If a part is worn, I have it replaced. Just recently I had a new exhaust system installed and every two years, I have the entire plane sprayed with Corrosion X. She is always in a hangar so yes, she is spoiled. But I do not play golf or hunt; instead, I spend my disposable income on my bird.

We were about 50 minutes into our flight, cruising at 4,500 which is about 4,000 AGL at about 140 kts true and a headwind of about 18 kts coming from our 2 o’clock. I have heard this engine purr for over 10 years. She always makes the same sound and just as a parent knows when their child is sick, I know when my engine has the sniffles. At about 9:10a something didn’t sound right. I took off my headphones, which immediately got my wife’s attention, and we both sat there and listened intently. It had a rough sounding roar that I had never heard before. But knowing that my oil change was clean and the fact that my compressions were excellent, I thought that perhaps there was some carbon built up on a valve and it was sticking which caused the strange noise. All the gauges were in the green, the RPM and manifold pressure were exactly where they were supposed to be, and the oil temp was about 165 degrees. Everything was normal…. for another 10 minutes. I got comfortable again, turned back on The Stones, checked in with Columbia SC ATC and enjoyed the ride.

At 9:20, about 10 minutes after our noise investigation, the engine shuttered hard three times and began to vibrate to a point that I thought the engine mounts were going to snap. I had no choice to but to pull the throttle back to idle and then begin what I had trained to do at least 100 times – my CFI would pull my throttle to idle, say “your engine has quit, what are you going to do?”. My trainer, William drilled it in to my head that eventually, one day in your lifetime, your engine is going to stop producing power and you need to make sure your response is muscle memory. And that’s exactly what I did. When the engine went to idle, I didn’t get nervous, I didn’t panic, all I did was remember my training – your engine has quit, what are you going to do? I went immediately into what I had memorized as my emergency checklist – I pitched for best glide, looked at my iPad and located a runway 8 miles away, immediately turned towards that runway and then tried to trouble shoot the issue. I ran the engine power back up and the vibration and shuttering was so bad that I was afraid the engine would vibrate off the mounts, twist off the prop and cause so much damage that I wouldn’t be able to control the plane. I adjusted the mixture and prop pitch, but nothing helped. I knew we were going to have to land…. somewhere.

I looked down at my iPad and Foreflight showed the closest airport as KFDW which has a nice long runway. I quickly keyed the CTAF into my flipflop radio and started to calculate in my head just how far I thought we could glide. My plane has a 7.6:1 glide ratio. We were at 4,000 AGL and 8 miles from the runway. I could not make the numbers work and for a CPA, that’s a tough thing to realize. I told my wife that I wasn’t sure we could make it, but we would be close enough that we could certainly find a suitable landing spot. She looked at me and said, oh we are going to make it. I have too much work piled up in the office.

I then informed Columbia ATC of my problem, and this is probably when I made my one mistake. The controller asked if I was declaring an emergency and I told him that I wasn’t yet because there was a chance I could make the runway. In hindsight I should have immediately declared an emergency because the physics part of my brain was telling me that at 4,000 ft, there was no way we were going to be able to glide 8 miles. But I didn’t mention the E word. If I had to do it over again, I would have. However, I don’t know how my wife would have reacted in the cockpit if I had declared. The way we were going now, she was as calm as I was, and this was merely a routine landing, and we would be on our way home shortly. Since I didn’t declare an emergency, Columbia instructed me to switch over to the CTAF and terminated radar services. I quickly snapped back that I was “going to stay with you” until I was certain of where I was going to land. In my mind I was thinking that if we end up in a field or upside down in a tree, I want to be able to tell you where I am.

The next 6 minutes seemed to drag on and on forever.

Remember, the headwind? When I turned direct towards KFDW, I had to turn to my 8 o’clock. What was once a bothersome headwind was now my saving grace. The newly found tailwind was blowing us and blowing us fast towards the airport. About a mile and a half from the runway I told Columbia that I was now switching because I would make the airport and thanked him for his help.

I switched over to the CTAF and in the calmest voice I could muster said, “this is Dakota 84478, we are a mile and a half final from runway 22 and I have no engine power. I say again, I will be landing on runway 22 so if you are on the runway, get off or I will land on the taxiway.” I then called out a half mile final and was 100% confident we would make it, but if there was another plane on the runway, I couldn’t go around. Luckily, there was no traffic in the area even though there is a well-respected flight school at the airport. We landed with a stiff tailwind, and I crossed the numbers 35kts faster than my landing speed and still rather high. Having flown this bird for 10 years I knew exactly how to get her down. I kicked in all the flaps at once, pulled the nose back and settled onto the runway at the halfway point at about 60kts. I was able to roll off on a taxiway before the end of the runway.

There was an A&P at the airport and he and his team quickly began to diagnosis the problem shortly after we landed. A counterweight broke loose and destroyed the internal components and the crankshaft and contaminated the prop governor with metal shavings. The engine was done. She had been a great engine and had taken my family to many vacation spots and getaways. But she had done all she could do. There were no indicators that this was going to happen. Admittedly, I was about 100 hours past TBO, and a new engine was scheduled for October of '21 during the annual along with a new 3-blade prop. Seems as though the old girl had a different schedule than me.

It’s an experience that I will always remember, and I learned some great lessons. First, even though your engine maintenance numbers are great, always expect the unexpected. Next, I know now that at least on a clear, sunny day, I can survive an engine out and now have the real-world experience to prove it; but I also learned this – don’t be afraid or shy or concerned with what paperwork might be involved if you invoke the E word. In short, declare an emergency, even if you aren’t certain it’s a real emergency. You can explain away the mistake later. If I had declared an emergency, I could have asked Columbia ATC to call KFDW and inform them of our situation and they could have helped with the one unknown: the possibility of traffic in the area and another plane on the runway taking off towards us. My lovely wife and I are fortunate and very blessed that the day ended the way it did. We have been flying our normal schedule since August. Thanks for listening.

Latest posts