The ultimate private pilot check ride
The weekend of 9/1/2012, Labor Day weekend I took my private pilot check ride. I had been flying under a sport pilot license for a couple of years at that time and had some reasonable flying experience under my belt, but I was what I would consider to be still very green. Any check ride is riddled with nerves being worried about getting the right answers as well as performing all of the maneuvers to check-ride specifications. This ride was no different.
The ground portion of the check ride was behind me and we started off with the typical short and soft field take offs and landings at KEIK before departing the pattern to head out on the initial leg of the simulated cross country journey. After breaking off the cross-country portion the DPE asked to take the controls to see how the plane performed.
We were flying a TL Ultralight Stingsport of which I was a partner in. The little 2-seater Light Sport aircraft flew like a little sports car. Light and nimble and quite fun to fly.
We weren't too far into the check ride when the examiner asked for me to perform steep turns. For those of you who aren't familiar with the maneuvers in aviation, steep turns are effectively what they sound like. Picking a specific heading the pilot places the airplane into no more than a 45° bank either to the left or right to complete a 360° turn and when the initial turn is done, you turn the plane back the other direction to complete the second half of the maneuver. It's a pretty simple process, when the airplane works.
On this day I started into the turn and was about 1/3 of the way through the initial part of the turn when the airplane started running rough... really rough. I keep my hand on the throttle when making these maneuvers to help manage any power changes necessary. Having my hand there today was extremely valuable because at the onset of the roughness I started to retard the throttle. But no amount of drawing the power back was going to help today because by the time I had the throttle pulled back, the entire event was pretty much over.
What happened next was something all pilots practice for hoping to never experience - total loss of the engine, or more to the point, the propellers on the engine.
When I was in my primary training I had conversations with my CFI at the time about the loss of an engine. I remember him saying that in the moment your mind will try to tell itself that "nah - there propellor is still spinning" and this wasn't any different.
In the moments after the vibration stopped EVERYTHING has to happen quickly. We were around 2,500 feet above the ground and were going to land whether we wanted to or not. Fortunately we were directly over some open fields, so put a checkmark in the box for a place to land. I remember as we were in the initial moments looking across from the north east side of Longmont thinking the airport was on the south west side of town and maybe we could glide to the airport. It was a fleeting thought as we were well below the necessary altitude to glide there.
The airplane was equipped with a parachute which was certainly an option, but I remember thinking "but why - we are fully in control of the airplane", so I wasn't too worried about needing to use that option. It felt like with each slow turn we made towards the ground another one of these revelations went through my mind.
The loss of an engine things need to happen. Best glide speed, carb heat on, full mixture (neither of these options were on this airplane so that wasn't necessary) pick a landing spot, set the transponder to 7700 (the squawk for an emergency) and broadcast on 121.5 the mayday. I dialed in the transponder and for the first time ever pressed the "EC" button on the radio. So a lesson learned, always know what the buttons are going to do in the airplane before you need to use them. Even though I pressed EC on the radio, it dialed it into the secondary radio and not in the primary position. So my first transmission was back to the Erie airport of which we were still on their frequency.
I flipped the 121.5 frequency on the radio to the transmit position and made my mayday call. I swear that ATC responded the exact fraction of the second that I let go of the transmit button and they were all over it. When you initiate this proces a lot of wheels are put into motion. ATC has a series of questions to ask including the infamous "how many souls on board" which is easy, but the harder one is trying to give them a good location of where you're going down. It's hard to imagine this being an issue now with ADS-B being required, but back in 2012 ADS-B was still years off.
So we continued down to the field we had selected. I'd never landed an airplane on anything but a hard asphalt or concrete runway, so I was thinking the road would be better. I have since changed my mind. The DPE on the ride pointed out that there will be cars, road signs, light posts, etc. along the side of the road making it much harder to land safely.
There were still some concerns coming down. There were power lines along the approach end of the plowed field. I had concerns about having to make an "over or under" decision so I was ready to make the approach to the field. The DPE I was with advised we had plenty of time to make another turn - and that is the voice of experience talking, so I was happy to oblige.
One thing to note is that there is no way I did all of this on my own. The DPE I worked with was very gracious in giving me all of the credit, but this is far from the truth. After the initial radio broadcast I was focusing on flying the airplane and getting us down safely. We shared some of the flying responsibilities as he managed the radio when I didn't have time. As we continued to circle lower we fell below the ability to transmit so ATC could hear us. This then became a relay operation where there was (I believe) a Delta airline overhead performing hand-off of the transmissions we were making to ATC.
Our final turn was made and we were now ready to attempt a landing on the field. We cleared the power lines and I configured the airplane for a landing. This was the first of September, some fields were recently plowed and this is where we were to put down. I tend to be very snarky and/or make very seemingly inappropriate comments when I'm under stress and this wasn't any different. I turned to the DPE and asked "uh, so, you want a soft field landing configuration - yes?" It was going to be a soft field landing either way, but it was funny in the moment - at least to me it was.
Our wheels touched town into the soft dirt making for a VERY short landing roll. I don't think we went more than 150 feet. We came to a very quick stop, opened up the canopy and scurried out of the aircraft. Afterwards the thought went through my head for the first time that there was a strong chance of us flipping over and had that happened there wouldn't have been a way for us to egress from the airplane because the canopy opens up to allow for an exit. Fortunately that didn't happen. But I sure look at how to get out of an airplane differently these days.
After we got out of the aircraft and realized we were no longer in danger, trying to wrap our brain around what just took place, I asked the DPE two very important questions.
- Are you o.k.? (this is important)
- Did I pass? (this is even more important)
When the first blade left the spinner it then collided with the second blade coming around and snapped that one off at the base. So yes, the whole spinner was going around with just one blade, wildly out of balance which would explain the extreme roughness of the engine.
There wasn't much time to let this soak in because now we had to get a hold of the authorities to let them know we were o.k. Where we landed was between two corn fields and the corn was well over 6 feet tall. We could see the tops of the fire engines going up and down the nearest road, but they couldn't see us. presumably they were looking for some type of evidence that an airplane crashed.
So I wandered over to the nearest farm house. There were cars around the house, so people were home. I knocked on the door and a gentleman answered curious as to who this stranger is at the door.
"Hi, I'm wondering if you could tell me where I am" as if I was some sort of alien that dropped to the planet. This produced a very confused look on his face to which he said "well, how did you get here?" I explained to him that we had lost the engine in the airplane and we landed in the field out back. He replied with "I didn't hear an airplane". I responded with "you're catching on"
From there I got the address contacted the authorities and also waved down the firetruck which had been pacing up and down the nearby road. Once our location had been identified we became a swarm of emergency activity. I mean what person, much less emergency responder, isn't interesting in attending a good plane crash? And just for the record, it wasn't a "plane crash" it was an off-field landing, or unintended landing.
In addition to the hive of emergency equipment and personnel arriving the NTSB is now calling both myself and the DPE looking for updates. A single reporter arrived as well. I also had been coached by my instructor that the media never gets their story straight when it comes to aviation stuff and I was leery of having any conversation with a reporter about what was going on... after taking the lead from the DPE I was working with I eventually spoke with the reporter, but I kept my conversation short.
I also was worried that this was going to be on the news almost as soon as we landed. So somewhere between walking away from the farm house and the rest of the emergency equipment showing up I had called my wife Laurie to let her know what happened and that I'm o.k. when I have some time. As I was talking to her my phone was ringing from the various emergency folks needing to talk to me.
Uh, guys, pro tip here. There's no amount of telling your wife you're o.k. that works over the phone. There's no amount of telling her not to worry and not to come to where you're at. Yeah - that doesn't work and in retrospect I probably could have handled it better. But it is tough to juggle all of this at the same time.
Anyway, after the fire crews and other emergency personnel I spent the rest of the day helping the partner in the airplane dismantle the wings from the airplane and prep it for moving back to the hangar for repair. In the end the firewall of the plane was cracked and the engine mount was bent due to the forces on the engine from the prop departure. This of course could have turned out worse had the engine completely left the aircraft. The CG on the airplane would have been too far aft that it wouldn't have been fly-able and the parachute would have been the only option. Fortunately it didn't come to that in this situation.
The plane was eventually repaired and by the time this was completed I had moved onto another flying club to fly bigger and better airplanes. The failure happened when the composite blade failed at the base. To the best of my knowledge there was at least one other incident globally that happened similar to mine, but I never got a lot of details about it and I don't think anyone was injured in that incident as well, which was very fortunate. In air issues such as this certainly qualify as an emergency, but one thing driven into me by my initial instructor - fly the airplane first. And in the end, this is what I did.
Oh... and yeah. I passed.
Link from the accident report: https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/148726
Coda: Nothing to do with the check ride per se, but I normally was recording my flights at this time, but through a set of circumstances I had lent out my camera to a buddy of mine who was going diving the week leading up to the check ride. He and his wife were slated to return back the day of the check ride and I was to pick him up as the exam would have long been over. When my wife showed up at the airport instead of me, the first words out of his mouth were "what happened - did Brian crash the airplane?"
So... funny you should ask... ;)